Ever wonder why your ears pop on planes? It’s a pretty universal phenomenon, although some people can’t quite get rid of the pressure, regardless of how frequently they fly. The good news is that you can safely unclog your ears provided that you understand the mechanism that causes that unpleasant “pop.” The Eustachian tube is a small funnel that connects your middle ear to the back of your nose. When air pressure changes, the Eustachian tube will equalize the pressure—as long as it’s working correctly and it has enough time to make the necessary adjustments. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case when you’re rapidly ascending and descending through 39,000 feet. Here are a few of the most effective methods for unclogging your ears and enjoying a safe, comfortable flight.
1. Try the classics: Chewing gum, yawning, and swallowing.
These methods work because they activate the same muscles that control the Eustachian tube, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology. “Swallowing occurs more often when chewing gum or when sucking on hard candies,” the organization’s website reads. “These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent. Yawning is even better. Avoid sleeping during descent because swallowing may not occur often enough to keep up with the pressure changes.”
2. You can also hold your nose, close your mouth, and gently blow through your nostrils.
The key word there is “gently,” as blowing too hard can cause serious ear damage. You shouldn’t need much pressure to open up the Eustachian tube and relieve the pressure. Children shouldn’t attempt this method, as they’re more likely to use excessive force. If these methods don’t seem to work, something might be blocking your Eustachian tube, and when that’s the case, you’ve got one option: Remove the blockage.
3. Take decongestants before your board the plane.
Decongestants thin out your mucous, allowing it to flow freely (sorry for the mental image). Many Eustachian tube blockages are caused by congestion, so taking an over-the-counter decongestant before your flight will often prevent your ears from popping. You can also try a nasal spray for a quicker solution, provided that you visit the airplane bathroom to use that spray (your fellow passengers will appreciate the courtesy). Consider decongestants even if you feel fairly healthy. Blockages aren’t always associated with sickness, so if you frequently encounter pressurization issues, an over-the-counter medicine is certainly worth a try. Just be sure to check with your doctor beforehand if you have any persistent medical conditions or if you’re taking any other medications.
4. Some airlines also sell specialized earplugs.
Earplugs like EarPlanes help to regulate air pressure, and they can be essential carry-ons for some passengers. Just be sure to toss the earplugs at the end of the flight if you’re ill; they’re porous, so they’re not so easy to clean. If none of these methods work, see an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Eustachian tube blockages can lead to hearing loss, so you’ll want to get the problem checked out sooner rather than later. Try to limit your flights in the meantime.