Let’s face it: flying on a plane now is hardly the marvel that it may have seemed like when you were a kid taking off into the air for the first time. Forget about the amazing feats of engineering that allow us to travel through commercial aircraft. For most of us, flying is downright uncomfortable from the moment we step into the long line at airport security. Perhaps the most annoying part of flying is the discomfort that takes place in the ears thanks to rapid pressure changes that occur when the plane is quickly gaining altitude during takeoff or plummeting back to the ground upon landing. During the ascent and descent of the aircraft, you may experience the characteristic pop that relieves pressure in your ears and lets you remain comfortable throughout the flight. However, nasal congestion, an upper respiratory infection or inner ear problems might get in the way of the popping that will offer sweet relief.
Flight attendants and pilots are skilled at managing inner ear pressure, because they are used to frequent altitude changes that occur during flight. Fortunately, this particular skillset is easy for anyone to learn as long as you have a simple understanding of how pressure affects the ears. There is a tube in the inner ear called the Eustachian tube that resupplies air to the middle ear, which is constantly being absorbed by membranes in the ear. Because the air pressure drops at higher altitudes, the Eustachian tube will need to remain wide open to help keep fluid from building up in the ear, causing the sensations of muffled sound or pain in the middle ear. If you have congestion caused by allergies or a common cold, the tube may be blocked. This will cause the common feelings of discomfort that many passengers have while flying.
If you have congestion from allergies or an illness, try using a nasal spray and oral decongestant before your flight. This can help ease the pressure that prevents proper airflow and drainage. Swallowing also promotes opening of the Eustachian tube, so many plane passengers will always have mints or gum when they fly, since these increase both saliva production and more frequent swallowing. Simple motions such as moving the head from side to side while holding the nose and swallowing can be used by anyone to ease the sensation of air pressure irregularities in the ear.
You also might have been told to hold your nose and mouth closed and blow – the idea being that you will force air into your Eustachian tubes and equalize the pressure. Unfortunately this can also result in blowing out your eardrums or even give you a terrible middle ear infection! You are better off sticking with the aforementioned tips – or start traveling exclusively by train.
What are your favorite tricks for staying comfortable in flight? Share your secrets in the comments below!