We’ve all felt it: A plane descends, pressure inside the cabin changes, pressure builds inside our ears, and then—pop! Here’s everything you need to know about why altitude changes affect your ears and how to deal with it, pain-free.
Why Do Your Ears Pop on Airplanes?
It all starts with your Eustachian tube, a pencil-sized funnel connecting the back of your nose with the middle ear. As your airplane prepares for landing, it ensures air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays roughly the same. “When you fly, they’re changing the pressure around you,” says Dr. Quinton S. Gopen of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “To keep up, you need to open and close your Eustachian tube, or it will hurt your ear.”
Why Your Ears Won’t Pop
One common reason ears just won’t pop? Colds or allergies, which cause your mucus membranes to become inflamed. That inflammation then causes the Eustachian tube to become clogged and it’s unable to open and close properly. At best, this is gonna hurt. At its worst, you may rupture your eardrum or bleed into the space behind it.
“The worse the cold is, the higher the risk that you end up with an ear problem,” says Dr. Alicia M. Quesnel, an otologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. Many doctors recommend not flying with a stuffy nose—most often, though, avoiding travel isn’t practical advice. Instead? Attempt to limit your flight time. If you must travel with a cold, consider a nonstop, rather than a connection.
“It’s not the length of time you’re flying that matters,” Quesnel says. “It’s how many times you’re going up and down.
How to Pop Your Ears
1. Yawn or talk to open the mouth and activate the Eustachian tube.
Yawning or even talking can work well for mild discomfort. Even a fake yawn, where you simply mimic the wide stretching of a the mouth, can do the trick.
During any of these actions, “you’re opening and closing that tube,” Quesnel says. “When you open and close that tube you’re equalizing pressure with the outside world.”
Repeat every few minutes until you feel your ears pop and there’s relief from the pressure.
2. Chew gum, swallow liquid, or suck on candy to change the pressure in your throat.
These approaches, recommended by moms everywhere with fussy babies, really do work. “Swallowing activates the muscles that open the Eustachian tube,” the American Academy of Otolaryngology says.
3. Use a long-acting nasal decongestant.
Use a long-acting nasal decongestant to offset any swelling that might be going on in your nose and interfering with your Eustachian tube. Doctors recommend 12-hour or 24-hour Sudafed, or Afrin nasal spray. If you’re using the nasal spray, give yourself a spray 30 minutes before takeoff, and again at 30 minutes from descent.
“These medicines are not a cure-all, and you can still have problems,” Quesnel says, “but you can optimize your ability to equalize pressure by taking a nasal spray.”
4. Try the Valsalva maneuver…
Gently pinch your nose shut. While pinching, suck in your cheeks. Then, with your cheeks still sucked in, proceed to blow air out (with your nose still pinched shut). This technique will target any pressure that’s in the back of the nose specifically.
5. …or the Toynbee maneuver.
This ear-popping technique is simple but effective. Gently pinch your nose shut while simultaneously swallowing. You can try the Toynbee and the Valsalva maneuvers back to back until you feel relief.
6. Avoid sleeping during takeoff or descent.
If you pass out on the plane before it even takes off, or are still sleeping while it’s in descent, you won’t be swallowing, chewing, yawning, or doing any of the other things that will help your ears pop naturally—and that lack of release (and relief) may lead you to wake up with a painful earache. Avoid all this by staying awake and making sure your ears have popped (especially during descent, when the altitude change is more painful).
7. Use special earplugs to slow the rapid change in pressure.
You can also use earplugs to help ease pain. Gopen likes EarPlanes ear plugs. These hypoallergenic, disposable earplugs naturally filter and regulate air pressure, which should help relieve discomfort.
8. Apply a heating pad or warm washcloth to your ear.
Another technique for opening up your Eustachian tube is applying heat with a warm washcloth or a heating pad. The heat will help to unclog the Eustachian tube, and, in turn, open and close to release built-up pressure.
9. Get pressure equalization tubes implanted.
Sure, implants may sound severe, but if you suffer from pressure-related ear pain during every flight’s takeoff and landing (whether you have a cold or not), you might have Eustachian tube dysfunction. If you have this condition and you’re a frequent traveler, consider asking about pressure equalization tubes implants in your ears.
It’s a simple, ten-minute procedure that helps your ears drain fluid and regulate pressure. The implants last one to two years, and the procedure is typically performed in a doctor’s office.
Pressure equalization tubes, however, are a last resort, as they can lead to ear infections and/or perforated ear drums. If you think you may suffer from Eustachian tube dysfunction, talk to your doctor about the implants and do a cost/benefit analysis.
This article originally appeared on CNTraveler.com.