For most people, traveling by air causes uncomfortable, sometimes painful ear popping. This can also happen when climbing to or descending from a high altitude, or when diving underwater. If you travel with kids, ear popping can make the trip all the more frustrating. So here’s the scoop on ear popping – what causes it, and how you can prevent it.
Understand what causes ear popping. Whenever the air pressure around you changes suddenly (when flying, climbing to or descending from a high altitude, or diving underwater) the pressure in the cavity inside your ear (behind the ear drum) is supposed to change with it, as well. But sometimes, this doesn’t happen, and difference in pressure between the cavity and the outside of the ear can be uncomfortable. (Doctors call this barotrauma.) Then when you do something that opens up the Eustachian tube that leads into the cavity (like yawning), your ear will “pop” as the pressure difference is equalized.
Treat any congestion beforehand. Sometimes the Eustachian tube doesn’t open by itself properly because of inflammatory conditions like allergies (the tube gets inflamed and swollen) or a cold. If you’re feeling “stuffy” before changing altitudes or diving, use a nasal decongestant or antihistamine in preparation.
- Gargle with warm salt water.
- Take a decongestant, such as Sudafed, every 6 hours and continue for 24 hours after you land to shrink membranes in the sinus and ear. Follow the precautions on the label.
- Use a pediatric-strength nasal spray once as directed. This helps open the Eustachian tube, without giving you more medication than you need.
Keep the Eustachian tube open. To prevent your ear from popping uncomfortably or painfully, you need to stop the difference in pressure from building up. The best way to do this, strangely enough, is to repeatedly pop your ears on purpose. Opening your Eustachian tube deliberately will allow air to come or escape into your ear from the back of your nose and the upper throat. If you’re diligent, the pressure difference won’t be much, and your ears won’t pop uncomfortably on their own. If you’re flying, for example, and the plane is ascending or descending, don’t go to sleep–stay awake and keep doing the following:
- Swallow. Chewing gum, sucking on candy, or nursing a drink will keep you swallowing.
- Yawn. For a little extra push, place your index finger about 1/2 inch into your ear canal and press firmly towards the top and back of your head as you yawn as widely and openly as possible.
- Pinch your nose and blow gently. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver and takes practice to perform correctly, however once learned it will usually allow you to pop your ears any time you want.
- Hold your ears shut. This will lessen the pressure difference, and air will slowly leak out.
- Breathe in and hold for three seconds, then breathe out again.
Get medical attention if the discomfort is severe, or if it persists for more than a few hours. You should also consult a doctor if you experience any drainage from the ear or a fever.
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