Galley Gossip: Blocked ears – how to ease the pain in flight

You’re on a flight trying to get a little rest when the kid whose been kicking your seat for the last half hour suddenly begins to scream.You do what any normal passenger would do and spin around, shooting the parents an evil look. When that doesn’t work you ring your flight attendant call light and ask the attendant if perhaps she can help, all the while thinking thank God we’re landing soon. What the heck is wrong with that kid!

Blocked ears. Altitude changes increase air pressure as the plane lowers. The change in pressure pushes the eardrum inward. Because children have relatively narrow Eustachian tubes, they may not function as effectively as an adults’, especially if they’re clogged by an inflammation or ear infection. Blocked ears can cause severe pain, dullness in hearing, and can occasionally lead to hearing loss.

What a parent can do

  1. Don’t allow the child to sleep during descent
  2. Find something to suck on; a bottle, pacifier, gum or hard candy
  3. Postpone any future air travel if a cold, sinus infection, or allergy attack is present.
  4. Ignore the jerk seated in front of you.

What to do when your own ears hurt

  1. Steam helps. Many passengers will ask for wads of hot wet paper towels stuffed inside plastic cups that are then placed over the ears. The steam seeps from the cloth through the cup and into the ear. But because so many people have been burned using this technique, flight attendants (at my airline) no longer do this.
  2. Chew gum or constantly swallow or yawn during descent. This allows the muscles in the Eustachian tube to contract and open, equalizing the pressure. When you hear a clicking noise, you’ll know it’s working.
  3. Use a nasal spray or decongestant. When you’re feeling congested, use it a few hours before the flight and also an hour before landing.
  4. Do the Valsalva maneuver. This is the best way to clear clogged ears. Pinch your nose and close your mouth while forcibly exhaling through your nostrils. Continue to do this periodically until landing.Once on the ground do not use Valsalva maneuver.

Are your ears bothering you after a flight? Do what I do and try taking taking a hot steamy shower and drink plenty of hot tea. If plagued with ear pressurization problems, invest in a pair of disposable ear plugs like EarPlanes which can be found online and at local pharmacies in sizes for both adults and children, and don’t leave home without them!

Photo courtesy of TomD