Ear Barotrauma

What Is Ear Barotrauma?

Ear barotrauma, also known as airplane ear, is that clogged-up, sometimes painful feeling you get in your ears when the air pressure changes quickly.

It's the biggest health problem for people who fly. And it can be especially painful for babies and young kids because their ears aren't fully developed.

Ear barotrauma also can happen when you ride in an elevator or drive in the mountains. It can happen in the water, too. Scuba divers call it "ear squeeze."

Ear Barotrauma Symptoms

Common symptoms include:

  • Stuffed feeling in your ears
  • Muffled hearing because your eardrum can't vibrate and make sound the way it should
  • Ear pain

If you hear a "pop" in your ears, that's a sign your eustachian tubes are open. If they stay blocked, your middle ear can fill with clear liquid to try to balance the pressure. If your eustachian tubes are closed, it can't drain. In this case, more serious symptoms can happen:

  • Extreme ear pain
  • Dizziness called vertigo
  • A busted eardrum -- fluid or blood leaking from your ear is a sign
  • Hearing loss

With a mild case, your symptoms should go away shortly after you get back on land. If they don't or if your symptoms are serious, see your doctor.

Ear Barotrauma Causes and Risk Factors

Your ears are especially sensitive to changes in air and water pressure. Still, most people don’t get ear barotrauma. You may be at risk if you have a problem with your eustachian tube where it doesn’t open normally. Reasons that may cause this include:

You’re at a higher risk of ear barotrauma if you’re around loud explosions in the military or scuba dive without proper gear.

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Ear Barotrauma Diagnosis

Your doctor will look inside your ears with a tool called an otoscope. They'll check to see if there's fluid behind your eardrum or if it's damaged. If it is, it may take weeks to heal and you might not hear very well. Usually, the only treatment is time.

If it isn't better in 2 months, you may need an operation to prevent lasting hearing loss.

Go to a doctor right away if you feel like you're spinning or falling (vertigo) and your symptoms happen right after flying or diving.

Ear Barotrauma Treatment

Mild symptoms of ear barotrauma usually last a few minutes. If they last longer, you may need treatment for an infection or another problem. Serious damage, such as a burst eardrum, may take a few months to heal. Sometimes you may need surgery to repair the eardrum or the opening into your middle ear.

For a mild case, you can usually treat your symptoms yourself.

  • Try to "pop" your ears.
  • Chew gum or hard candy.
  • Drink water during flights. Swallowing helps keep the eustachian tubes open.

Ear Barotrauma Prevention

You can prevent ear barotrauma by keeping your eustachian tubes open. Ways to do that include:

  • Medicine. If you have a cold or allergies, take a decongestant about an hour before you fly. A nasal spray or an antihistamine could help, too.
  • Earplugs. Special plugs designed for air travel can slow pressure changes and give your ears time to adjust.

If you're a diver, try these things to protect your ears:

  • Equalize your ears before your dive and while going down into the water.
  • Go down feet first -- it can make equalizing easier.
  • Look up -- extending your neck can open your tubes.
  • Get back to the surface slowly if you feel pain -- continuing your dive can injure your ears.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 21, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Medical School: "Barotrauma."

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: "Ears and Altitude," "Earwax and Care."

Diver's Alert Network: "Ear squeeze (Ear pain)."

National Ocean Service: "How does pressure change with ocean depth?"

Nemours Foundation: "Flying and Your Child's Ears."

Diver's Alert Network: "The Diver's Complete Guide to the Ear."

Ochsner Health System: "Ears and Airplane Travel, Earwax, and Ear Cleaning."

Cedars-Sinai.org: “Ear Barotrauma.”

Medical News Today: “How to treat and prevent ear barotrauma.”

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