clear your ears

Pop and relieve the pressure!

One unpleasant side effect of airplane flights is clogged ears which happens when there is a difference in air pressure between the middle ear and the pressurized cabin on the airplane. It can start when the plane is ascending after take-off but is most common when the plane begins its descent. It is a very uncomfortable sensation, and if you already had some congestion, it can be painful and even cause a ruptured eardrum. 5% of adults and 25% of children get clogged ears when flying.

The fancy medical names for this condition are barotrauma of the ear, or barotitis media or aerotitis. You can trot out one of these terms when anyone asks you why you aren’t able to hear anything.

There are several remedies that help to unclog ears. In this busy travel season you might be in need of one of them.

The Frenzel Method – Pinch your nostrils shut (which closes the nasal cavity) while making a ‘K’ sound (which closes the air flow to the lungs). The compressed air is forced into the Eustachian tubes and into the middle ear which equalizes pressure in the eardrum. This method was developed in Germany in 1938 and taught to dive bomber pilots in WW II.

The Toynbee Method – Pinch nostrils shut and close your mouth while swallowing. Sipping water makes this easier. The swallowing pulls open the Eustachian tubes.

The Valsalva Method – Pinch nostrils shut, close your mouth and try to breathe through the nose.

The Lowry Method is a combination of the Valsalva and Toynbee methods. Pinch nostrils closed and blow and swallow at the same time.

Passive Techniques like yawning, chewing gum, sucking on a hard candy or lozenge, sipping a drink can all help keep the Eustachian tubes open. The passive techniques are reported to work better on ascent than descent.

If any of the above techniques work you will know when you hear a ‘pop’ and the pressure in your ears is relieved. You might have to repeat the method many times during the descent to keep ears clear. It is best to try these methods as soon as you feel any pressure in the ears. If too much pressure builds it may become impossible to clear.

Other solutions – If you tend to have ear problems when you fly, try nasal or oral decongestants (we use Afrin half an hour before a flight if we have congestion).  These shrink mucus membranes to include the back of the nose and Eustachian tubes.

If clogged ears are a common occurrence, try some special earplugs that have a regulator designed to slow the flow of air and pressure changes. They are inexpensive ($6 – $9) and are sold in drugstores, airport shops and Amazon.

Another device is Eustachi, a natural remedy that sends a puff of air into the nostril to ‘exercise’ the Eustachian tubes. All you have to do is swallow. $59.99.