The ear has three compartments: the outer, middle and inner ear. The middle ear is filled with air supplied by the Eustachian tube, which connects it with the back of the nose. The Eustachian tube keeps air pressure in the middle ear equal to the air pressure in the environment.
Discomfort in the ears is often due to the changes in air pressure in the middle ear. Changes in altitude cause the volume of air inside the middle ear to change. Air expands at high altitudes and contracts at low altitudes. The change in volume is usually compensated for by the Eustachian tube, which equalizes air pressure.
Problems occur if the tube is blocked because of a cold, sore throat, allergy, growth, cleft palate or anatomical abnormality. Because oxygen is continuously absorbed from the lining of the middle ear, a vacuum occurs, causing hearing to become blocked and muffled.
Marked changes in altitude, such as those that occur when flying, can create a similar problem, especially in noncommercial airplanes when the cabin is not pressurized adequately.
If the blockage continues for a long time, fluids can build up in the middle ear requiring treatment with decongestants, antibiotics or drainage.
Repeated swallowing is the easiest way to get rid of the problem. Yawning, chewing gum or sucking on a piece of candy can also be helpful. If this doesn’t unstop the ear, relief can sometimes be achieved by holding the nose and gently blowing air against it to pop the ears. Breathing vapors from a Vick’s inhaler through each nostril can also provide relief.
To avoid problems when flying, prevention is the best remedy. Don’t fly if you have a head cold, allergy attack or sinus infection. If you have to travel, it is wise to bring your sinus or allergy medication and nasal decongestant spray with you.
If the ear blockage doesn’t go away within a few days after air travel, or if you experience dizziness, bleeding, continuous pain or severe hearing loss, see an ear specialist immediately. Usually, the problem can be resolved with medication or a simple office procedure.
For additional information or to make an appointment, please contact River Cities Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists, P.L.L.C. at (304) 522-8800 or (800) 955-3277.
Joseph B. Touma, M.D., F.A.C.S.
Touma Ear and Balance Center
1616 13th Avenue, Suite 100
Huntington, WV 25701
304.522.8800 or 800.955.3277