Ear barotrauma usually happens when a person is sick or changing altitude, such as when they are flying on an airplane, driving up a mountain, or descending at the beginning of a scuba dive.
What is this sensation and how can a person make their ears pop? Read on for more information about this common experience.
How to pop the ears
Sickness and changes in altitude are the main causes of ear barotrauma.
Popping the ears helps to open the eustachian tubes and regulate the pressure in the middle ear.
There are many strategies people can use to help pop their ears safely and effectively:
Yawning helps to open the eustachian tubes. Try forcing a yawn several times until the ears pop open.
Swallowing helps to activate the muscles that open the eustachian tube. Sipping water or sucking on hard candy can help to increase the need to swallow.
If yawning and swallowing do not work, take a deep breath and pinch the nose shut. Keeping the mouth closed, try to blow air through the nose gently.
It is best to be cautious when performing this maneuver because there is a small risk of rupturing the eardrum.
To do the Toynbee maneuver, pinch the nose closed and close the mouth, then try swallowing. Having a mouthful of water may make it a little easier.
To perform this maneuver, pinch the nose closed and use the tongue to make a clicking or "K" sound.
Chewing gum helps increase swallowing because it stimulates saliva production. Also, the chewing motion can also help to open the eustachian tubes.
Try special devices
There are devices available that can help to clear the ears. These are especially useful for people who are not able to use or perform the above maneuvers safely or effectively.
There are three types of devices:
- Special earplugs: These special earplugs claim to help to regulate the flow of air from the environment into the ear. It is not clear whether they are truly effective, but they are inexpensive and risk-free.
- Otovent: The Otovent and similar devices mimic the motions used in the Valsalva maneuver. To use it, insert the nozzle into one nostril. At the other end is a deflated balloon. Pinch the open nostril closed and blow up the balloon using the nozzle in the first nostril. This device can be especially helpful in children or other people who are not able to use the Valsalva correctly.
- EarPopper: The EarPopper is a prescription device that can help to open the eustachian tubes. Simply insert the device into one nostril, close the other, and push a button. The device releases small puffs of air through the nose and into the eustachian tubes.
Many devices are available to buy online to help people pop their ears safely.
Seasoned travelers often take a decongestant when they fly. Both pills and intranasal sprays can work, though an older study found oral medication to be more effective.
Taking the medicine 30 minutes before take-off or landing can help to shrink the mucous membranes in the nose and eustachian tubes, making it easier to clear the ears.
While flying, it is important to avoid sleeping during the descent and landing. It is more likely for the ears to become clogged at this point and infrequent swallowing during sleep may not be enough to clear them.
Infants sometimes find it difficult to clear their ears, as they are not able to intentionally swallow or pop their ears.
Feeding (either at the breast or with a bottle) or providing a pacifier can help the baby suck and swallow in order to clear their ears. This may mean waking the baby during descent to avoid later discomfort.
What happens when the ears pop?
The eustachian tube connects the ear to the throat and regulates air pressure between the ear and the nose.
Inside of the ears is a small tube, known as the eustachian tube, which connects to the throat. The eustachian tube helps drain fluid from the ear and regulate air pressure between the nose and ears.
Swallowing opens that tube and allows a small air bubble to move from the nose and into the ear.
Most people notice a little click or popping noise in the ear when they swallow; this is caused by the movement of air into the ear.
The air is continuously absorbed into the lining of the ear. This process helps to keep air pressure on both sides of the eardrum the same.
If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, or if the outside pressure is different than the inside pressure, it can cause that uncomfortable sensation that the ears are full.
Blocked eustachian tubes
The most common cause of a blocked eustachian tube is a stuffy nose, such as from a head cold or sinus infection.
When the nose is stuffed or clogged, it can prevent the eustachian tubes from draining or filling with air properly.
A buildup of earwax is also a common cause of a blocked or obstructed eustachian tube.
When the eustachian tube is blocked, it prevents the air bubble from moving into the middle ear, eventually creating a vacuum and pulling on the eardrum.
This can be uncomfortable and can cause other problems in the ear, such as hearing loss and dizziness.
Changing air pressure
The pressure of the air within the ear is usually the same as the pressure outside of the ear. However, in higher or lower altitudes, such as when flying on an airplane or deep sea diving, the air pressure is not the same.
As a result, the eustachian tube needs to open wider and more frequently in order to maintain and equalize to the new air pressure.
Most people notice that their ears feel worse in a plane during take-off and landing when the airplane is making a quick ascent or descent.
It can also happen anytime there are rapid altitude or pressure changes.
When to see the doctor
Someone with clogged ears should see their doctor if the ears do not pop using these strategies. Anyone experiencing persistent pain or discomfort in their ear should contact their doctor sooner.
The doctor may suggest medication, such as decongestants or steroids, to help clear the ear, or antibiotics if a person has an ear infection.
In rare cases, surgery may be required to help open the eardrum, drain the fluid, and equalize pressure in the ear.