Scene: Your plane is speeding along the runway. You’re holding your breath and white knuckling your arm rests as you prepare for takeoff — not because you have a fear of flying, but because you hate-hate-hate that inevitable pressure that will be plugging up your ears, especially if you are suffering from a cold.
So WTF is going on in your aural canals anyway? In your day-to-day life, the air pressure inside your inner ear equals that of your outer ear. But as the Institute of Physics explains, when you experience a rapid change in altitude — in this case, a plane’s takeoff and landing — the pressure inside exceeds the pressure outside. This causes that muffled feeling that makes everyone urgently search for their gum.
In order to get relief, you need to help that inner-ear air move quickly through your Eustachian tube (which connects your nose with your middle ear). When you feel that satisfying “pop” or “click,” it means the air has hustled along and you’ve started to equalize the pressure. Then repeat.
But you didn’t come here for a bio-physics lesson. You came here because you want to know the most efficient ways to deal with the pain and the pops. Here’s the best advice we found web-wide, courtesy of Healthy Hearing, Berkeley Wellness, and the American Academy of Otolaryngology.
Swallow. A lot. The more you swallow, the more you encourage the natural reflex of the Eustachian tube, and the quicker your pressure will equilibrate. If you find it difficult or awkward to repeatedly force a swallow, try an alternative below.
Yawn. A lot. For some people, yawning causes better Eustachian air conduction than swallowing. Try both techniques and see which seems to give you a more satisfying pop. Then repeat.
Chew gum. Depending on what type of gum chewer you are, this may be no more effective than simply swallowing or yawning. But if you tend to generate a healthy amount of saliva (and therefore swallow more), it will have a natural, automatic effect.
Eat! Want to guarantee you’re swallowing? Snack during takeoff and landing! Try something with lots of little bites, like popcorn or almonds.
Drink! Not hungry? Take small sips upon sips of water until your plane levels out at 10,000 feet.
Saline spray. If you’re congested, this means there’s even more liquid blocking your airflow than normal. Give yourself the gift of saline spray (pure saline; no medicine) to help loosen up your sinuses, then try the methods above.
The Valsalva Maneuver. All of the sources above swear it will do the trick. Here's the step-by-step instruction, courtesy of Healthline:
- Pinch your nose closed.
- Close your mouth.
- Try to exhale, as if inflating a balloon.
- Bear down, as if having a bowel movement.
- Do this for about 10 to 15 seconds.
EarPlanes. If your ears are especially sensitive, there are ear plugs that have a special filter that helps moderate the pressure. (They’re available on Amazon, and get excellent reviews.)
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