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Home > Medical > What causes the air pressure inside my ears when the aircraft takes off?
What causes the air pressure inside my ears when the aircraft takes off?
Flying - Medical
Tuesday, 08 January 2008 19:13

Hello Capt Lim,

I have just been to your "Fear of flying" website and I think it is very informative especially if you are interested in jet aircraft as I am.
I would like to thank you for making a site such as this and congratulate you for doing such a good job of it.

I wonder if you could/would possibly answer a question for me. I do not actually have a fear of flying (although I did a little on my first flight) but I do seem to suffer from a feeling of air pressure in my head when the plane takes off and when it turns and of course if there is turbulence. This does not seem to happen during descent unless the plane turns on approach. I also suffer from this in elevators whether they are going up or down.

Can you tell me what might cause this and how I could fix it?

A. John

Hi John,

What you are experiencing is quite normal to any one with a slight cold. I usually advice anyone with a severe cold to refrain from traveling by air for they may risk bursting their eardrums.

The feeling of pressure in your head is in fact due to the exertion of your ear drums caused by the unequal pressure between your middle ear and the air outside the body. Remember, when you swallow, you hear a slight popping sound in your ears. It means you are normal. Air in the middle ear is always being equalized on both sides of the eardrum through a small pencil lead size hole known as the Eustachian tube, which is a membrane-lined tube, connected to the back of the nose.

If you have a cold, the membrane will become sticky and wet. It causes the middle ear to be blocked. When the tube is obstructed, the middle ear cannot equalize. When an aircraft climbs or descents, the outside air pressure changes and the vacuum inside will tend to stretch the eardrum outward or inward. If the pressure is not equalized in time, it may stretch the eardrum membrane. This will prevent the eardrum from vibrating normally and any sound may appear abnormal and cause pain in the ear too.

To overcome the problem, try swallowing, yawning or move your jaw from side to side. This will exercise the muscles and hopefully, open the Eustachian tube if it is not very sticky. Many years back, Airlines used to provide sweets to passengers before take off. Today, all jet aircraft are pressurized and hence the pressure changes are very much reduced. The giving sweets are no longer practiced by most Airlines lately, in which case you may have to buy your own sweets the next time you fly!

If you still find you still cannot get rid of the blocked ears despite the recommendation above, try this. Pinch your nostrils shut, close your mouth and blow your nose very hard a few times until you hear a popping sound. If it pops, then you have succeeded!

The explanation above is similar to going up or down an elevator. You mentioned that it also happened when the aircraft was turning and during turbulence. What actually transpired was that, the aircraft was climbing all the time and the pressure outside the body was reducing, perhaps at a slower rate than if you were flying a non-pressurized aircraft.

My advice is, do not fly if you have a cold. If you are not sure how bad your cold is, try the pinching nose test, described above on the ground first. If your ears pop, then your Eustachian tube may be able to be cleared if you do the similar test in the air. To play it safe, consult your doctor first before you fly if you have a cold!

Hope I have answered your question. Happy flying on your next trip in the air!

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