With the holiday season upon us, many of us will be traveling via plane. For some people, that means popping your ears on a long-haul flight – but how should you go about it?
There are various techniques that claim to help with ear popping during air travel. However, there is no definitive one-size-fits-all technique as each person’s body is unique.
Why do my ears pop when I fly?
Did you know that airplane cabins are pressurized to simulate an altitude at which human beings could not normally breathe unaided? This is because flying at supersonic speeds actually causes a drop in pressure, causing your ears to ‘pop’.
How much pressure exactly? It seems that the speed of sound depends upon temperature. The speed of sound in dry air is roughly about 1 mile (1.6 km) per second – it also happens to be the approximate speed of sound at sea level on Earth’s surface near 25°C (77°F). At this speed, sound travels four times faster than automobiles travel over highways and twice as fast as ocean waves move along the ocean floor. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that at cruising altitude (~ 39,000 ft) the outside air temperature is -55°C (-67°F). Now, if we assume that sound travels at 1 mile per second in dry air at room temperature (~25°C), then we can calculate that it travels roughly half as fast in dry air at a temperature of -55˚C (i.e., at ~0.5 miles per second). It turns out that airplanes tend to cruise somewhere around 40-45,000 feet (12km), so they are moving through the air which is both very cold and very thin; these factors make the speed of sound slow down by a factor of two or three (not too far off from our assumed numbers above).
Because the air is so thin and the speed of sound is so slow, it can take a few seconds for the pressure in your ears to adjust after the plane has ascended or descended.
How can I prevent my ears from “popping”?
There are a few things that you can do to prevent your ears from popping during a flight. Yawning and chewing gum are two natural ways to pop your ears, but if those don’t work for you, there are other methods. You can try swallowing frequently or using a decongestant nasal spray before takeoff. If all else fails, ask your doctor about earplugs designed to relieve pressure in the ears.
Once my ears have popped, is there anything I can do to make them feel better?
Ear popping is a common occurrence, and it can happen for a variety of reasons. If you’ve just come off a flight, the change in air pressure is likely to blame. Here’s how to pop your ears after a flight:
- Swallow frequently. This will help to equalize the pressure in your ears.
- Yawn or chew gum. These activities will also help to equalize the pressure in your ears.
- Pinch your nose shut and blow gently. This will create a vacuum in your ear that will help to pop your eardrum.
- Use a decongestant. If you have a cold or sinus infection, using a decongestant can help to clear your sinuses and relieve the pressure in your ears.
- See a doctor. If the pressure in your ears doesn’t go down after trying these tips, or if you experience pain, see a doctor. He or she may be able to recommend other methods for relieving the pressure in your ears.
How can I prevent my ears from popping on an upcoming flight?
If you are planning a flight within the next few days, there are a couple of things that you can do before takeoff to prevent your ears from popping. One is to increase the humidity in your cabin by drinking lots of water before flying, as this will keep fluids inside your body and help keep it hydrated. Another thing you should consider doing is using a decongestant nasal spray 45 minutes before take-off to unclog your Eustachian tubes.
More helpful tips to pop your ears
The Valsalva Maneuver
This procedure is simple but it requires some practice to perfect it. It consists of pinching your nose shut while keeping your mouth closed and blowing air out through your nose with the effort so that your ears will “pop”. You should feel a slight pressure change in your if performed correctly. To do this, take a deep breath in and breathe out while pinching your nose. You should feel or even hear the “pop”.
The Frenzel Maneuver
This method has the same effect as the Valsalva maneuver but there is one extra step. First, pinch your nose shut and exhale forcefully through your nose. Then place your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind where your upper front teeth meet and try to say “Ka”. Your ears should pop after that.
This works by the same principle as the Valsalva Maneuver, but it does not require any muscle contraction in your throat. Swallowing makes the muscles in the middle ear push air into your eardrums. Air pressure then reduces since there is more space for outside atmospheric pressure to enter your ear.
If you are unable to equalize your ears, try “blowing”. This can be done either through pinching your nose and blowing gently or taking a deep breath and trying to exhale while holding one nostril closed while you pinch/close off your other nostril with a finger and gently blow outward (not too forceful though as an ear injury could result).
Conclusion: When you fly, your ears can experience a change in air pressure that causes them to feel clogged. This is because the sinus cavity expands and reduces during flight. The best way to alleviate this feeling is by yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum. If these remedies don’t work for you, try popping your ears with a pinhole while sitting up straight on an airplane (not leaning over). Don’t forget about using earplugs while flying too!