You may feel your ears pop when pressure changes. Your ears may pop if you change elevations, like while flying in a plane or diving in the ocean. Learn what causes ear popping and find out when you should be concerned.
Understand Ears Popping
Ear barotrauma is a condition when the pressure in your eardrum changes. Signs of ear barotrauma may include:
- Pressure in your ears
- Pain in your ears
- Loss of hearing
- Muffled sounds
When the air pressure around you changes, your eardrum can bulge in or out. The ear popping sensation you feel is your body evening out the pressure in your eardrums. You may feel a gradual change in how your ears feel before your ears pop. After they pop, you probably feel an instant change that improves the pressure.
Your ears have a tube called the Eustachian tube that allows airflow to your eardrum. The airflow helps to create equal pressure on both sides of your eardrum. Your ears usually need to pop when changes in pressure are sudden. The popping sensation you feel is usually safe for your ears and nothing to worry about.
Flying. High altitudes begin at around 8,000 feet above sea level. For reference, New York City is 33 feet above sea level. Denver – the Mile High City – is about 5,000 feet above sea level. When you fly in an airplane, you can ascend thousands of miles into the sky very quickly. The quick altitude change from takeoff to cruising altitude may affect your ear pressure and cause your ears to pop.
Diving. When you dive in a pool or in the ocean, you have the added pressure of the water around you. Diving too quickly may cause your ears to pop. Scuba diving requires special training, and this is one reason why. If you dive, make sure to use the proper equipment and techniques.
Mountains and valleys. Driving through different areas of the country may lead to changes in altitude. When you drive up a mountain or down into a valley, altitude changes can happen quickly. Prepare by taking chewing gum or candy with you on the drive.
Yawning or sneezing. When you yawn or sneeze, you may block your Eustachian tube and change the pressure in your ears. If this happens, try to yawn or gently pop your ears by holding your nose.
Sinus problems. Conditions like the common cold, a sinus infection, or allergies can lead to eardrum pressure. The membranes in your sinuses may swell in response to a viral or bacterial infection. Swelling can extend to the Eustachian tube, blocking air from your eardrum.
How to Treat Ear Pressure
Most of the time, changes in ear pressure don’t require special treatment. You can pop your ears to equalize pressure yourself by:
- Chewing gum
- Eating or sucking on candy
- Pinching your nose and blowing gently to relieve pressure
You’ll know your technique worked if you hear a pop and feel a difference in the pressure on your ears. It may still take some time for your ears to feel back to normal. If you’re in a situation where elevation continues to change, you may need to repeat these activities more than once.
Infants and children. Your baby or child is more vulnerable to pressure changes as their Eustachian tube is smaller than an adult's. They cannot pop their ears on purpose, but you can help. Depending on their age, offer a bottle, lollipop, or candy to help.
Medication. If allergies or illness contribute to your ear condition, talk to your doctor about possible medication. They may offer you a prescription or over-the-counter solution to help. Sometimes nasal sprays and decongestant medications help relieve pressure on your ears. Make sure you take the medication as recommended so you don’t cause any unnecessary harm to your ears.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you have any concerns about how your ears feel, talk to your doctor. Make sure you share what happened when the pressure in your ears changed. Tell them whether or not your ears popped, and share any pain you feel.
Signs that you should talk to your doctor include:
- Pressure in your ears that doesn’t resolve
- Persistent pain
- Hearing changes that don’t improve
If your ear barotrauma is severe, your healthcare provider may recommend medicines, surgery, or bedrest with your head elevated.