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Airplane Descent Causes Excruciating Ear Pain

If you have ever had ear pain while you were flying, you know how challenging it can be. Fortunately, there are a few products and a couple of home remedies to help the pressure in the ears equalize more readily to the outside air pressure. Will one of them help you?

EarPlanes Can Ease Ear Pain upon Descent:

Q. I had ear pain when flying as a kid but didn’t think much about it. Then a few years ago, I flew to a different city. On landing I wanted to rip my ears out! The pain was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was so severe all I wanted to do was get off the plane.

After landing, I immediately went to the nearest pharmacy and bought ear plugs called “EarPlanes” to relieve pressure. When I got on the plane to go home, I crossed every finger and hoped they would work – and they did!

You put them in an hour before landing. They didn’t take the pain away completely, but it was tolerable. I’m getting on a plane tomorrow and have them in my bag ready to go.

A. Other readers share your enthusiasm for EarPlanes to ease the pain of airplane descent. The company now offers an app (EarPlanes+) for iPhones. It measures cabin air pressure and lets a passenger know when to insert the ceramic earplug to reduce discomfort.

Child Objects to Travel due to Ear Pain:

Q. My son is unwilling to fly because whenever the plane starts coming down for a landing his ears hurt. We are planning a family trip to visit grandparents but he doesn’t want to go. I hate to have him suffer but can’t leave him behind. Is there any way to prevent this ear pain?

A. First, we would encourage you to have a pediatrician or ear, nose and throat specialist make sure there is nothing seriously wrong. If not, a decongestant nasal spray can keep sinuses open and make it easier for the pressure to equalize within the ear.

The pain is generally caused by a rapid increase in the air pressure outside the ear as the plane descends. Air inside the ear, which may have equalized at altitude, can’t keep up and adjust rapidly enough. Congestion in the nose and ears seems to make matters worse.

Ear Ease May Help with Pressure Change:

We have also heard that a product called Ear Ease can help. These plastic units are filled with hot water and placed over the ears during descent. They cost about $45 per pair through Amazon.com. If you click on that link you can get an idea of what they look like.

Another reader, Marianne, suggested the following approach, which is similar but less expensive.

“Ask the flight attendant to bring you two Styrofoam coffee cups stuffed with very hot wet paper towels. You put the cups over your ears before descent begins. You can’t carry on a conversation and you feel kind of dumb but it works.”

We haven’t seen research showing how effective this approach is, but anyone who tries it should use just one paper towel stuffed into the bottom of each cup so that there is no danger of burns from hot water. Make sure that the paper towels have soaked every last drop so that no hot water can drip on a child’s ears.

Ear Ease Is an Alternative to Alleviate Ear Pain in the Air:

Q. I suffer terribly from ear pain when flying. I take the decongestant pseudoephedrine, chew gum and blow my nose but none of these strategies is working any more to relieve the pressure. Do you have any recommendations?

A. Over the holidays, millions fly to visit family and friends all over the country. For some unfortunate passengers, ear pain can be excruciating on descent.

We recently received this recommendation from someone with experience:

“I have been a flight attendant for over 17 years and I have seen and heard it all when it comes to ear pain on descent. I’ve had passengers screaming and crying. One passenger’s eardrum exploded, shooting blood on the white shirt of the passenger next to him.

“This is a serious problem, and the medications people take for it don’t always work. I was lucky to have been given an Ear Ease years ago as a baby shower gift. After my son was born and I went back to work, I took the Ear Ease with me every time I flew. I’ve helped so many people, both kids and adults, in terrible pain.

“We used to use foam cups with hot paper towels in them, but our company told us not to use them anymore. There was a worry that someone could be burned if the towel dripped. Many people ask me where to get the Ear Ease device. I tell them check the Internet. It is a lifesaver if you are flying with head or ear congestion.”

Ear Ease resembles a headphone ear cup. Hot tap water in the base heats the air around the ear and helps equalize the pressure in the Eustachian tube that runs between the inside of the ear and the throat. That can often alleviate the pain.

Another reader offered the following:

“I read your column about the woman whose son hates to fly because it makes his ears hurt. I had the same problem and tried everything. I went to several doctors, but to no avail.

“Then a doctor friend suggested that I blow balloons on ascending and descending. Bravo! No more plugged ears. You do have to keep blowing the balloons to keep your ears open.”

A. Thanks for the fascinating tip. We have accumulated all sorts of home remedies for “airplane ears.” Many people complain that during descent their ears really ache. That’s because the pressure inside the ear differs from the outside air pressure.

Ear nose and throat specialists have recommended gentle nose blowing to help equalize the pressure. We suspect blowing on a balloon may have a similar effect.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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