It looks like the coming months could fill our calendars, and the sky, as commercial airliners take people on long-delayed vacations and business trips as COVID restrictions are lifted. If it’s been a while, it’s a good time to remember that flying can put a real beating on your ears and that taking precautions is wise.
Dealing with changes in air pressure that can’t be avoided—especially during takeoffs and landings—is usually something that your body can handle. Planes are designed to compensate for this and your ears (in close coordination with the eustachian tubes) can handle the rest.
But … if you’re clogged up from a cold, allergies, or other reason something could go awry. The eustachian tubes, which are the passageway between the ear canal and throat, need to be fully functional to deal with the rapid change in air pressure. Even at full capacity, ear-popping can be unpleasant. If they’re clogged up, then actual damage to the eardrum is possible, which is known as barotrauma.
Basically, the surface of the eardrum is drawn inward too fast and hard, which can lead to tearing or rupture. Not good.
If you’re feeling congested before a flight, taking a decongestant is advisable. Likewise, specialized earplugs designed to counter air pressure changes are also a good idea (they also protect the ears from the loudness of jet engines).
Even good old-fashioned gum chewing works, since the chomping motion forces the eustachian tubes to be more malleable, creating create better airflow from the inner ear.
You might have a better trip if you take these precautions and a visit to a hearing professional pre-flight could also be a good choice!