Anyone who has flown in an airplane will recognize the strange feeling that happens in the ear during takeoff. Even within a pressurized cabin, rapidly ascending to flight altitude creates a full feeling in the ear, sometimes even causing a popping sound. This reflects how much our inner ear is calibrated to the air pressure of our surroundings. Rapid changes in surrounding air pressure can cause hearing difficulty and even damage to the ear drum.
Air Pressure and Flying
Air travel had to overcome many engineering hurdles to create the flying experience we have today, including making sure passengers are provided with enough oxygen to breathe! As an airplane ascends to its cruising altitude, the air pressure drops significantly. Lower air pressure makes our body work harder to access oxygen in the air. Oxygen comprises 20.9% of our atmosphere. At sea level, our body experiences that oxygen as 20.9% of what we breathe in. As altitudes rise however, it becomes more difficult to access that oxygen and the air feels “thinner”. At an altitude of 30,000 the air pressure is so low, it feels like there is less than 7% oxygen and it becomes difficult to breathe.
To make flying comfortable, airplane cabins are pressurized to around 5000-8000 feet above sea level. This is a slightly lower air pressure than at sea level, but it still allows passengers to breathe easily. The reason airplanes are equipped with oxygen mask systems are to keep passengers safe if the cabin pressurization fails. The drop-down masks deliver oxygen while the plane makes a rapid descent to a lower altitude, usually 12,000 feet or under, where there is enough oxygen accessible for breathing without assistance. Usually, a plane experiencing a problem with the cabin pressure will descend as rapidly as is safe to ensure that passengers reach a breathable altitude before the plane’s oxygen supply is depleted. While this rapid drop in altitude can be life-saving, it can have a very adverse effect on your ears, even tearing the ear drum.
Your Ear and Air Pressure
Unfortunately, the changes in air pressure can conflict with our ear pressure! At a flight’s take off, your ear moves from a high air pressure to a much lower air pressure very quickly. This causes the ear drum to stretch outward until the two pressure zones are equalized. When an airplane experiences a rapid descent, especially without a pressurized cabin, the eardrum is sucked inward as the lower pressure inside the ear meets the increasing pressure of the cabin.
In most cases, the pressurized cabin stabilizes air pressure enough that no physical damage to the ear occurs. When the plane has a change of altitude, the ear will still have a subtle physical reaction to changing air pressure. Problems can occur however, when altitude changes quickly in a plane without maintained cabin pressure. During a rapid descent, the eardrum is sucked inward as the low air pressure in the inner ear meets quickly increasing air pressure within the cabin. If the eardrum is stretched too far it can cause intense pain and a perforated eardrum.
Injuries to the eardrum are often temporary but can cause hearing problems, pain and leave you vulnerable to ear infections. Most eardrum injuries heal themselves within 6-8 weeks as the skin-like membrane of the eardrum slowly regenerates. While an eardrum tear is healing it is best to keep the ear clean and not to submerge the ear in water in order to avoid exposing the inner ear to infections that can cause permanent harm.
Equalizing Air Pressure
To keep your ears comfortable on a plane, especially during takeoff and arrival, you’ll need to gradually work air back and forth between the inner ear and the cabin pressure. When we flex the Eustachian tubes in our ear, it gradually equalizes the air pressure between the external world and our internal air. Luckily, this isn’t as complicated as it sounds. We can flex our Eustachian tubes by talking, chewing or even simply swallowing. To make a flight easier on your ears, chew a piece of gum or suck on a hard candy while the flight is ascending and descending. If you have a travel companion, talking to them will also naturally help your ears equalize their air pressure to the cabin. If you don’t have a travel buddy and you forgot your gum, simply swallowing will help relieve ear pressure. Repeatedly swallowing helps equalize pressure as altitude changes.