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Ears and Air Travel

Ears and Airplane Travel, Ear Wax, and Ear Cleaning

The experience of "popping" ears when flying on an airplane is the most common medical complaint of airplane passengers. Due to an air pocket in the middle ear that is sensitive to air pressure changes, the changing altitude as the plane takes off or lands can cause discomfort in the ears. The middle ear consists of the ear drum and the ossicles (three bones that are joined together).

Swallowing or yawning usually can help "pop" the ears (activating the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the nasopharynx) and ease the discomfort. However, ears that are already blocked (by a cold, for example) cannot equalize the air pressure in the middle ear adequately, therefore, creating a vacuum that sucks the eardrum in and stretches it. When the eardrum cannot vibrate, sound is muffled and the stretched eardrum can be very painful.

If swallowing or yawning do not relieve the ears, the American Academy of Otolaryngologists recommends trying the following ear-clearing technique:

  • Pinch the nostrils shut.
  • Breathe in through the mouth.
  • Force the air into the back of the nose as if trying to blow your nose.

Small children are especially vulnerable to blocked ear canals because their Eustachian tubes are narrower. Use of a bottle or pacifier during take-off and landing may help pop their ears. Do not allow a baby to sleep as the plane is descending.

What is ear wax?

Earwax, also called cerumen, is naturally produced by the outer part of the ear canal to keep the ear clean. It performs this task by trapping dust and sand particles before they reach the eardrum. Wax also coats the fragile skin of the ear canal and acts as a water repellent. Accumulated wax usually migrates to the ear opening, dries up, and falls out.

How should ears be properly cleaned?

Normally, ears canals are self-cleaning and should not need cleaning with any devices or cotton-tipped applicators. Cleaning the ear can cause problems by pushing the ear wax deeper into the ear canal and against the eardrum. However, sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In the case of a blocked ear canal, consult your physician. He/she may recommend one or more of the following:

  • an irrigation of the ear canal to wash out the wax
  • a vacuuming of the ear canal to remove the wax
  • the use of a special instrument(s) to remove the wax
  • prescription eardrops or mineral oil to soften the wax

Always consult your physician for a diagnosis and for additional information.

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