Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Airplane Ear is and How to Avoid it

On my last trip home I ended up damaging my ear, and as result I had some temporary hearing loss. I have completely recovered, but since this is not fun, I thought I’d share my experience with you along with what I learned about avoiding this type of situation.

While traveling home from Russia (recovering from a slight cold), I woke up to find that my left ear felt as if it was still under pressure; sound was muffled, and there was some slight pain that came and went. I thought that my ear was still adjusting to the pressure changes, but no amount of gum chewing relieved the pressure. On subsequent flights, the descent caused the ear pain to come back; it was quite uncomfortable.

When the pain subsided, I noticed that my hearing continued to be impaired. I could hear between 25% and 75% of what I was used to hearing. This definitely wasn't normal air pressure adjustment.

Upon arriving at home I made an appointment to see my doctor. The examination revealed that something had ruptured in my ear due to a combination of sinus congestion and the pressure changes inherent to air travel. Normally the ear can adjust for the kinds of pressure changes that are present during take off and landing, but nasal congestion can impede this process.
In my case the pressure changes and congestion caused my eardrum to half fill with fluid, hence the hearing loss. I was prescribed some decongestants and told to wait for my body to resorb the liquid; this took two weeks.

After doing a bit of research, I found that my condition is referred to as barotrauma (pressure damage), commonly known as Airplane Ear. Airplane Ear can be much milder than my case, but it could cause permanent hearing loss. Web MD has an informative article about Airplane Ear that I enjoyed.

The doctor told me that if I was traveling with nasal congestion I could take an over-the-counter decongestant or antihistamine to help avoid this type of situation in the future. If you are a frequent traveler, it might be worth a trip to your doctor to see if this makes sense for you, but I'll definitely be following this advice in the future because hearing loss, even if it is only temporary, is no fun.

Have you ever experienced travel related hearing problems?

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  1. Istn't it interesting that there is no warning against the problems of flying with sinus conditions when you book a flight? Doesn't this make sense? I've traveled extensively overseas and have never heard of this before. I experienced the awful pain on a two leg trip and thought my ears were going to blow. They didn't but I had severe trama to the tissue and bones of my middle-ear and ear canal and my ears were full of fluid behind my eardrum; thankfully there was no infection. I was told that it could take up to 3 months for the liquid to dissipate from my middle-ear and not to fly until I could pop my ears on my own and then in the future to take Sudafed to ensure that potential sinus pressure would not keep the e-tubes from doing their job.

    I'm angry because I would never have flown if I'd known such a thing could happen. I haven't been able to fly back to my home in Europe and have been at the mercy of friends who are letting me camp out at their home. I was ready to take all the drugs AND use earplane ear plugs but was advised that on such a long journey, if the ear-plugs slipped even a little, I could revisit the pain and cause even more damage to my ears. I haven't been willing to take that step. I'm not flying until I know I can pop my ears. My hearing is just to important to me.

  2. I've had this problem. I "enjoy" a chronic issue with a muscle spasm on the left side of my neck and (coincidently)migraines that start on the left side, in fact, the left side of my upper body is something of a nuisance. Ear problems are just par for the course. I've tried lots of over the counter and remember taking bonine, which is sort of a motion sickness / antihistamine remedy, before flying and found that it relieved the problem. Now I see that it is not recommended if you have glaucoma, so I will have to start over when I start flying again. I gather my issue has something to do with inflammation in the ear canal. My (related) headaches are vascular.

  3. I have used a product called the Ear Ease that is a special hot water bottle that you fill with hot water and hold on your ear for about 5 minutes. It changes the pressure in the ear allowing it to equalize and open up your blocked ear. I got one as a gift over 15 years ago and I never fly without it. I used to have horrible ear pain when landing and this thing is small, easy to use and works like a charm.

  4. Great post. When I had terrible airplane ear I happened upon your blog. Reading your blog and my experience spurred me on to create my own blog about it and try and help others with it.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    J. D.