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Behind the Science of Why Ears Pop On Planes

03/26/2015 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

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It makes babies howl inconsolably on flights and sometimes during takeoff or landing I have the urge on the plane to just let myself collapse and do the same. That acute pain of ear pressure doesn't discriminate.

This post originally appeared on Map Happy.

I recently took a flight on the verge of a full-blown cold and my ears just wouldn't freaking pop no matter how wide I yawned or how hard I chewed my gum. A few years ago one of my ears never popped even after a few days on land and morphed into a dull pain that drove me to visit the doctor. It turned out to be a cold and had "moved into my ear" because of the flight (a great diagnosis).

The doctor went on to tell me that blowing air hard out through my ears by plugging my nose and closing my mouth is pretty dangerous. Dangerous like I could have ruptured my eardrum and caused irreparable damage. Some days of nasal spraying got me back to normal but plugged ears are something I started to pay attention to from then on.

It is time to get things straight on the phenomenon of ear popping.

It's about what's happening in the ear.

Pressure differences, right? but let's really get into it. Our bodies usually adjust to pressure changes smoothly without us noticing but when we're doing something like plummeting through the air or diving deep into the ocean, our mechanics often can't keep up as quickly. This is the pressure people often feel on take-off, descent or even if you're just driving up a mountain. The pressure difference and that uncomfy feeling, if you're curious, is called barotrauma.

Most of the time, our body can adjust to the differences in the atmosphere. Gizmodo explains:

We've evolved to be able to shrug off the weight of the atmosphere and our ability to hear actually requires it. See, sound waves are transmitted from the outer ear to the inner ear through the eardrum. This thin vibrating membrane acts as a barrier to liquids but allows atmospheric reverberations to pass through, however this requires that the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum be roughly equal.

By nature of how our ears work, air is always trapped in our middle ears. When the pressure changes -- higher up, the air is less dense and vice versa--it makes our eardrums push inward or outward.

Plane is Air becomes Air in MIDDLE ear is Eardrum is pushed
Taking off Less dense More dense Outward
Landing More dense Less dense Inward

When the pressure equalizes (the pop), what's basically happening is that air is being released through the middle ear to the throat via Eustachian tubes. Our ears, nose and throats are all hooked up, which is why something like yawning or chewing gum can help alleviate the situation.

Going through a tunnel on a train the situation is actually slightly different. According to Physics.org, the tunnel squeezes the air at the front of the train, creating a high-pressure situation, so it's not exactly the same phenomena that happens with a plane.

There are ways to prevent It.

Most of the time I board the plane and hope for the best with my ears, doing little more than chomping on a piece of gum during liftoff.

  • Take a decongestant. I've found this is an absolute must if I want to feel like I stand a chance of physically surviving flying with a cold or some serious congestion. Some people say it's the way to go even if you're feeling in full health.
  • Use filtered earplugs. I've never tried these personally but filtered earplugs are special earplugs designed to ease the air pressure differences during flying. Drugstores routinely stock them as well as some airplane stores. (Look for the ones selling neck pillows.) As a side bonus they also block some noise as traditional earplugs would.
  • Use nasal spray. I try not to medicate unless necessary but using a low-dose spray, even one for kids, can be a useful trick.

And ways to remedy it.

  • Yawn or swallow hard. These actions open the Eustachian tubes all on their own.
  • Chew gum or suck on candy. These are good tactics simply because they work up a bunch of a spit, which makes more swallowing happen.
  • Hold your nose, close your mouth. This alone apparently helps the Eustachian tubes level things out. There does seem to be some mixed information over whether blowing is OK or not. Personally, I choose not to.
  • Leave it be. Pressure changes have a way of sorting themselves out on their own and doctors say it'll all even out on its own within a couple hours on land. (If it doesn't, see a doctor.) I prefer to take a more proactive approach but it's good to know I should still be fine even if my furious chewing is all to no avail.

For a mom dealing with an upset child, doctors recommend a bottle or pacifier... or even breastfeeding. I have no problem with a mom breastfeeding her child on a plane but I'm sure someone would end up taking offense. I guess the big question is, which situation would you prefer sitting near? Breastfeeding or screaming baby?

Karina Martinez-Carter is an assistant editor at Map Happy. She has written for BBC Travel, BBC Capital, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist and more.

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