Dr. Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., P.A.
Dr. Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., P.A. Dr. Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., P.A.
Dr. Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., P.A.
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How Airplane Travel Affects Your Ears


by Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., F.A.C.S.
 
 
It has happened to all of us: a crowded flight and a crying baby (or two or three). During the take-off and again during the descent process, the poor baby fusses and cries, while the distraught parents feel helpless and tense.
 
Why do babies fuss so much during these altitude changes? The same reason your own ears pop during a flight--namely, the effect of air pressure on your middle ear.
 
An ear is divided into three parts: (1) outer ear, (2) middle ear, and (3) inner ear. The outer ear consists of the external part you see on the side of your head and the ear canal which leads to the eardrum. The middle ear refers to the eardrum itself, middle ear bones, and air pockets that are behind the eardrum and in the mastoid cavities. The inner ear is the location of the nerve endings for hearing and balance organs which are crucial to the body's equilibrium.
 
During airplane travel, your ears may be exposed to rapid altitude or pressure changes. Because it is partially composed of an air pocket inside your head, the middle ear is particularly vulnerable to these changes in altitude and air pressure.
 
Ordinarily, your ears will "pop" frequently when you swallow. This "popping" occurs when a small air bubble passes from the back of your nose into your middle ear. The air bubble travels through the Eustachian tube, a thin passage connecting the back of your nose with your middle ear, and is eventually absorbed by the tube's lining. Swallowing and yawning more quickly replenishes this air in your middle ear because these actions move the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. Swallowing and yawning thus help to equalize the air pressure on both sides of your eardrum.  Intentionally popping your ears (by gently blowing while pinching your nostrils) can also help.
 
In order to maintain ear comfort, your Eustachian tube must be able to open widely and frequently enough to adjust to air pressure changes. If the air pressure in your eardrum is not equal, your ears can feel blocked. This can occur for a number of reasons. Quick changes in altitude or pressure--such as in airplanes, elevators, or deep sea diving--make it more difficult for the Eustachian tube to do its job. Your Eustachian tube can also be blocked, and thus prevent equalization of your middle ear pressure, when you are suffering from an ordinary cold, nasal allergies, a middle ear infection, and/or a sinus infection.
 
Because children have particularly narrow Eustachian tubes, they are even more susceptible to blockages than adults. Babies and other young children obviously may not understand they need to swallow on take-off and landing during a flight, thus exacerbating the problem for them. Similarly, they cannot intentionally pop their ears. Parents can help alleviate their children's discomfort, however, by keeping them awake during altitude/pressure changes and encouraging them to suck on a bottle or pacifier.
 

KEEP IN MIND

  1. If you have had recent ear surgery, you should consult your physician prior to flying.

  2. Persons who have ever had ear surgery or those with a history of infections may wish to consult their physicians prior to snorkeling or scuba diving. There are also specific, important guidelines for flying after diving. Find out before you dive or fly.

  3. It is best to avoid flying if you are currently suffering from a cold, allergies, or sinus or middle ear infection.

  4. Over the counter decongestants (in the form of a pill or nasal spray) can alleviate ear fullness sensation caused by flight. Medication should be taken approximately one hour prior to the plane's descent. Pregnant women and those who suffer from heart disease or irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, or nervousness should consult their physicians prior to using such medication.

  5. Unless otherwise specifically ordered by your doctor, over the counter nose sprays should be used for no more than a few days. Typically, after 3 days of use, the same nose sprays which were so helpful initially may actually cause your congestion to worsen.

  6. If you continue to have ear fullness sensation and/or pain after your flight, see your doctor. You may have fluid in your ear or an infection requiring treatment.


Hector N. Hernandez, M.D., P.A.
Medicare Assignment Accepted - New Patients Welcome
21297-A Olean Boulevard Port Charlotte, Florida 33952
Phone: 941-764-0660


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2004 AAO-HNS/AAO-HNSF


Please read our disclaimer. Any information provided on this Web site should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with Dr. Hector N. Hernandez or other healthcare professional. If you have a medical problem, contact us for diagnosis and treatment.

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