Ear discomfort during flights occurs due to changes in pressure. A person can often take steps to help alleviate the discomfort without consulting a doctor. These measures include not sleeping during take-off and landing, chewing gum, or using earplugs.

A child sitting on a plane with their fingers in the earsShare on Pinterest
Amir Kaljikovic/Stocksy

Some people may call ear pain during flights “airplane ear,” and many experience ear discomfort or pain due to pressure changes due to being on an airplane. In medical terms, doctors refer to this condition as:

  • ear barotrauma
  • parotitis media
  • aerotitis media

When people experience it during a flight, it is often not due to an underlying condition. Instead, it frequently occurs during take-off and landing and results from altitude changes and pressure changes.

A person may be able to successfully treat the condition with home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) products. If a preexisting condition is present, individuals may need to speak with a doctor to treat the underlying cause.

The following are some methods someone may find helpful in avoiding and treating ear pain during flights.

Sleeping itself is not an issue during a flight. However, if a person sleeps during extreme pressure changes relating to take-off and landing, they cannot take any steps to actively prevent or treat the pain or discomfort.

If a person intends to sleep, a phone or watch alarm can alert them to the approaching landing.

A person may find chewing gum can help prevent ear pain during flights. This helps them become less susceptible to pressure changes from take-off and landing.

Chewing on gum and swallowing activates muscles that open up the eustachian tubes in the ears. This tube runs from the middle ear — the space behind the eardrum — to the back of the nose and throat and helps drain fluid. However, dysfunction can occur if it develops an infection or inflammation.

A person can also try yawning or sucking on a piece of hard candy to produce similar results from chewing gum.

Decongestants may help alleviate ear pain while flying. A person can consider taking one 30 minutes before a flight to give the medication a chance to activate.

OTC options should also be suitable for flying. People can typically get them at their local pharmacy, grocery store, or online.

Ear plugs can help block out extra noise during flights to help a person fall asleep or focus on work.

They can also help equalize pressure in the ears, which may help prevent discomfort when flying.

A person can use earplugs after take-off if they intend to sleep or just for the duration of the flight to prevent any possible pain.

People can also use filtered earplugs, which can slowly equalize pressure and decrease noise while still allowing them to hear important plane announcements.

The Valsalva maneuver can help maintain pressure in the middle ear during pressure changes. To do the technique, a person can:

  • pinch their nostrils shut
  • close their mouth
  • try and breathe out through the closed nose

A person can do this technique during take-off and landing or if they feel an ache in their ears during flight.

The common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections that cause congestion and ear infection are risk factors for airplane ear. If a person can avoid traveling during this time, it may help prevent ear pain.

If possible, an individual could reschedule their flight for when they feel better. Alternatively, drinking plenty of fluids and using cold medications may help with ear pain.

Children may be more prone to earaches on planes. In part, this may be due to issues that include:

  • an inability to swallow or yawn on command
  • more frequent upper respiratory infections
  • more tissue in the adenoids
  • the tubes responsible for equalizing pressure being straight, not curved like they are in adults, making drainage more difficult

Infants and toddlers also have small eustachian tubes, which are a risk factor for airplane ears.

To help a child with earaches relating to flights, a parent or caregiver can do the following:

  • avoid traveling when the child is sick or provide them with plenty of fluids before and during flight
  • when they feel fullness in their ear when taking off or landing, give a baby a bottle and the older child juice or water to drink
  • for older children, encourage chewing, swallowing, and yawning providing gum to older where suitable
  • wake up sleeping child or baby during take-off and landings
  • use a bulb syringe to help clear congestion
  • treat cold symptoms following a doctor’s advice

If an adult or child is not feeling well, experts recommend delaying flights.

However, if avoiding a flight is not feasible, a person may want to take some of the following steps:

  • drink plenty of fluids
  • take cold medications or decongestants before a flight
  • discuss other treatments or prevention strategies with a doctor

A person can consider talking with a doctor if they experience more frequent pain or aching in their ears. This could signify a sinus infection, ear infection, or other ear issues.

Ear pain may be intrinsic or start in the ear, which refers to primary pain, or due to a referred condition, which refers to secondary.

Secondary ear pain occurs due to various nerve connections between the ears and other areas of the neck and head.

Possible underlying causes may include:

A person can consult a doctor if they suspect an underlying health condition may be causing earache or pain. They can provide a prompt diagnosis and treatment according to the cause.

Avoiding ear pain during flights often requires minimal interventions. Remedies and prevention include chewing gum, decongestants, the Valsalva maneuver, and not sleeping during take-off and landings.

A parent or caregiver can help children by encouraging similar techniques. However, a child may need slight adjustments, such as drinking during take-off and landings or using a bulb syringe to clear congestion.

If pain or aching persists, a person may want to consider speaking with a doctor to determine the underlying cause and possibly recommend additional treatments.