Flying with Ear Pain – The Traveling Pharmacist

Image courtesy of Thaikrit /

Airplane flights aren’t always pleasant and if you are flying with ear pain, it can make it that much more unbearable.


Image courtesy of Thaikrit /

Take off and landing can be painful on the ears!

What Causes Ear Discomfort While Flying?  When you fly, pain in the ears can occur because of a blockage in the eustachian tubes.  These are the tubes that connect the middle ear and throat and help equalize ear pressure in the head.  On take-off and landing the pressure inside the middle ear canal and outside the body becomes unequal because the air pressure in the airplane cabin is changing. Normally the eustachian tubes quickly adjust and allow rapid equalization, and no pain occurs.  But if the tubes are blocked by congestion, a vacuum will form and fluid presses painfully against the eardrums.

What can you do to help alleviate the pain?  Drinking water, chewing gum, or yawning can open the eustachian tubes briefly enough to allow the pressure inside to equalize.  Bring along a pack of gum or bottle of water for painful takeoff and landings, especially if you feel a head cold coming on.  If you are traveling with infants or very young children, feeding a bottle during the flight can be a great way to help them cope with the strange pain in their ears. Sucking on a pacifier can also bring fast relief for a young child, while hard candies are a good choice for older kids. These simple solutions work for a majority of travelers.

There are several over-the-counter medications that can be used to help prevent inflight ear pain.  If you have a head cold, you can try a decongestant. These are available in systemic (tablets or capsules) or topical (nose sprays or drops) forms. Use at least an hour before flying to give it time to take effect. However, anyone who has heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes should not use the decongestant unless specifically advised to by your physician.

If you are already experiencing some pressure and these methods are not helping you can try to equalize the pressure using the technique SCUBA divers use.  Gently pinch your nostrils closed and very carefully hold your breath, exhale SLIGHTLY against your pinched nose.  This blows air into the ear tubes and can be an effective way to relieve the pain.

As with all medical conditions discussed on the Internet, check first with your doctor before using any alternative treatments.

Happy, Healthy Travels!

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About the author

Lisa is a traveler, photographer and pharmacist. She and her partner Cheryl MacDonald enjoy sharing inspiration and good health with fellow travelers!


Leave a comment
  • Thanks! I struggle to clear my ears all the time. Nick gets to scuba dive and I can’t 🙁 We’re on a plane tonight actually and I’m dreading it…I think my issue needs some professional help, rather than just chewing gum 🙂

    • Dariece, I hope your flight tonight goes well! One of our readers on Facebook suggested a product called Earplanes – a type of earplug that is supposed to help with equalization. They use a ceramic internal pressure regulator to keep your ears from being subjected to the drastic changes in pressure. I haven’t tried them myself, but maybe these might be something that would help you? Take care! Lisa

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