Ears Plugged After Flying: Causes and Coping Methods

Do you find your ears plugged after the plane taking off? You are not alone! Many people suffer from this condition which is referred to as airplane ear. This is caused when the air pressure inside your middle ear is out of balance. It usually happens during take-off or landing of the plane. 

Causes of Airplane Ear



Airplane ear is caused when the sudden changes in altitude cause pressure to change faster than your middle ear can react. Under normal circumstances, the middle ear is able to regulate the pressure through a tiny tube named the Eustachian tube. One end of the Eustachian tube is connected to the middle ear, while the other end has an opening in the back of the nasal cavity. This tube is unable to react quickly enough during rapid ascent or descent of an airplane, so the opening will be closed due to pressure imbalance, which makes people feel ears plugged after flying.

Risk Factors

Any conditions that affect the function of the Eustachian tube can make you more prone to airplane ear. Common risk factors include common cold, sinusitis, allergies, infection in the middle ear and sleeping during the ascent or descent. Having a genetically small Eustachian tube can also increase the risk of airplane ear.

When to See a Doctor

Usually, ears plugged after flying will resolve on its own; however, it is recommended to see a doctor if you experience prolonged numbness, vertigo (dizziness), hearing loss, severe pain, bleeding from your ear, or a ringing sensation in your ear even a few hours after getting off the plane.

How to Unblock Ears

  • Swallowing can help unplug the ears as it can stimulate the muscles that are responsible for opening the Eustachian tube. The act of swallowing occurs more frequently when you are chewing on some gum or hard candy, so try to chew something during ascent or descent.
  • You can also try to pop your ears by this simple maneuver. Inhale some air through your mouth and then try to blow the air out gently while squeezing your nostrils. This will increase the pressure and force the Eustachian tube to open. Some people may feel a small amount of pain during this process; however, that should disappear quickly. Repeat this process a few times.
  • There are specially designed ear plugs that you can try to help you with this problem. A product called EarPlanes has been made with a special filter that helps quickly equalize changes in the cabin pressure. These ear plugs are very useful for people who have a cold or sinusitis and are more likely to have ears plugged after flying.
  • Babies cannot unblock their ears intentionally. You can help by having them feed or suck on their pacifier during take-off and landing. Remember that children are more prone to have airplane ear because of the small size of their Eustachian tube.

Is It Recommended to Use Decongestants and Nose Sprays?

A lot of experienced travelers use decongestants and nasal sprays to avoid plugged ears; however, these products should be used with caution. While there is no doubt that taking a decongestant pill or using the spray about an hour before the flight will help the ears pop more easily, consistent and prolonged use can actually result in a rebound effect and increase the amount of congestion that occurs, so make sure you do not use them too often. If you are going to use them, use an hour before ascent or descent.

People with high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, irregular heart rhythms, or excessive nervousness should avoid using decongestants and nose sprays. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor before using them. 

Ears Plugged After Flying: Tips for Prevention

  • Follow your doctor’s advice on tips to fly after undergoing ear surgery.
  • Consider postponing a trip if you are suffering from a severe bout of sinusitis, cold or an allergy outbreak.
  • Do not sleep during take-off or landing.
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