an airplane flying above the clouds

Millions of people dread flying. It’s not really the long security lines, the puny snacks or the lack of leg room. It’s not even the frequent delays or the lost luggage. For a lot of fliers the problem is ear pain.

Airplane ears are caused when the pressure inside the middle ear doesn’t equalize to the pressure in the cabin. During descent, atmospheric pressure in the cabin increases rapidly. If the tube that connects the nose and the ear (eustachian tube) is blocked because of a cold, allergies or sinus problems, it’s difficult to balance the pressure.

The consequences can be temporary hearing loss, ringing in the ears, excruciating pain, dizziness or even bleeding in the middle ear. People who are prone to airplane ears have developed many strategies for dealing with this vexing problem.

Some take oral antihistamines and decongestants before flying. Others use nose spray to open sinuses just before descent. Chewing gum is a time-honored technique. But none of these strategies works for everyone.

We have collected many recommendations from readers. Here are a few of our favorites:

“I read an article in your column about flying with ear pain. My daughter had this problem and it was agonizing. Then a passenger sitting next to me on a flight told me about “hot cups.”

“The stewardess was very familiar with hot cups. These are Styrofoam coffee cups with a paper towel in the bottom and a small amount of very hot water poured into the cup. Then the cups are held over the ears. The steam helps the pressure stabilize and eases the pain. It worked wonderfully!”

Other readers have also endorsed the “hot cup” approach:

“I had airplane ears until I started using Nasacort daily. My ears would REALLY hurt and I’d hear all this squealing. When we went to Acapulco a few years ago, it was the second day before I could even hear again.

“But my flight attendant friend gave me a tip. She said on her planes they would take coffee cups and put wet paper towels in them. They would then heat them in the microwave and bring them to you. You hold a cup tightly over each ear, sealing it up. The hot vapor opens your ears every time!

“If they are reluctant to fix the cups, insist. My husband’s boss actually ended up with a punctured eardrum one time from having to fly while he had a cold.”

An elegantly simple and effective recommendation came from a diver:

“We are taught about backpressure during SCUBA class. If the person holds the nostrils shut with forefinger and thumb and gently tries to force air out the nose, the resulting backpressure escapes to the ears, forcing the eardrums outward. The reason for the pain on descending in an airplane is the same as when diving below 20 feet: the eardrums are being forced inward beyond tolerance.”

One last tactic is technological. Ear plugs called EarPlanes have a ceramic filter that slows the change in pressure. One reader says his wife went from bleeding eardrums to being comfortable flying wearing these.

We hope one of these strategies will help relieve ear pain while flying. Unfortunately, we don’t have any solutions for long lines, delayed flights or cramped seats.

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