Do Your Ears Feel Blocked On Flights Or Elevators? Expert Explains Reasons Behind It

You may feel blockage or pain in your ears on flights or elevators due to eustachian tube blockage. Expert explains the reasons behind this blockage.

Varun Verma
Written by: Varun VermaUpdated at: Dec 03, 2022 21:49 IST
Do Your Ears Feel Blocked On Flights Or Elevators? Expert Explains Reasons Behind It

Have you ever experienced a feeling of blockage or pain in your ears when you are on a flight or in an elevator? Does this feeling worsen if you are suffering from the common cold? You may be curious to know why such a phenomenon happens. In an exclusive interaction with OnlyMyHealth, Dr Diptarka Bhattacharyya, ENT/Otorhinolaryngologist, Apollo Spectra Hospital, Bangalore, explained to us why this condition happens.

How Do Ears Work?

To understand why your ears might feel blocked at a height, we first need to know how the ears work. Both of your ears have ear drums inside them. Some small bones are also attached to this eardrum. As the sound wave hits the eardrum, it vibrates. This in turn vibrates the small attached bones. This vibration creates ripples in a cavity inside your skull, which is filled up with fluid. These ripples are sensed by your nerves and that is how you hear.

Why Do You Feel Blockage In Your Ears On Flights? 

Here pressure equalisation plays a major role. Your eardrums need air to vibrate both on the inside as well as the outside. On the inside of the eardrum, the air comes from small tubes, called the eustachian tube. This tube is connected to your nose. Because the air supply is prevalent to the nasal end and ear end of the tube, anything that can block any end of the tube can cause issues. Thus, when you are in a flight, if the eustachian tube is not wide open, the pressure inside keeps decreasing in comparison to the outside. As a result, suction pressure is created on the eardrums, which keeps sucking them in. This sucked-in eardrum becomes stiff and cannot move, which is why some people feel ear blockage and pain when they are on a flight or an elevator.

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Why Does This Condition Happen?

Eustachian tube blockage does not happen because of one condition. There are many conditions that all end up at the same point where it blocks out the tube and they all present in the same way with ears getting blocked when you are climbing up or coming down.

This can be related to many different conditions, including things as simple as allergies, sinus infection, and adenoid tissue growth in children, to as significant as cancer. All these conditions can block the eustachian tube and present very similarly. 

Why Does The Condition Worsen In Cold?

The blockage in the eustachian tube is more common in cold. As one end of this tube is in the nose, any time you catch a cold, sinus infection, or allergy, the tissue of this tube around the nasal end swells up, pushing the tube inside. This is because the eustachian tube is not made up of bone but cartilage like the nose and outer ear. So, as the tube gets pressed, this can further add to issues of a common cold like a situation, where you get ear blockage, pressure or pain behind your ears, pain during swallowing, and a sensation of hearing a click.

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Treatment

If you don't have this ear pressure equalisation issue and you have it during a specific time, there are some easy ways to get relief. You can use a nasal spray or try the Valsalva manoeuvre. The Valsalva manoeuvre is an easy way to get rid of ear blockage. To perform this, close your mouth and nose and try to blow air through the ears. This process will create pressure and will pop the tube open. 

However, this comes with some dangers. If this tube is very strongly obstructed and you keep increasing the pressure, the tube suddenly pops open. This pressure can get transmitted into the ears in one instant, causing massive trauma to the ear bones and even to the nerve of hearing and you suffer from a condition called barotrauma. That is why, in acute cold or other mentioned issues, Valsalva should be done with great care.

If you are someone who has persistent ear blockage issues during the flight or a change in weather, means your tube has been compressed for a very long time. And because of long-term compression, there is weakness in the eustachian tube. In this situation, Valsalva cannot give you a permanent cure. Rather removing everything that is obstructing the tube is the one option. The obstruction can be because of many things, for example, obstruction due to adenoid tissues. In some cases, where the obstruction is because of the tissue that has grown at the mouth of the tube, eustachian tuboplasty is done.

Also Read: 5 Expert Tips To Prevent Ear Infection

Can Chewing Gum Help?

Many people argue that chewing gums unblock ears. When asked about the same, Dr Bhattacharyya stated, “Chewing works in pretty much the same way as Valsalva or yawning. All of these are different manoeuvres which work on the principle of pulling down the muscles around the tube that try to artificially open the tube. But they have the same limitations in that they work on a short-term basis. If you are someone who is having these issues all the time, then they are unlikely to give you a permanent solution.”

Conclusion

When you experience any kind of blockage, pain, or irritation, it is always advisable to visit your doctor and get a thorough diagnosis. It is only after diagnosis you will know what is causing your ear blockage and pain.

Image Credit: freepik

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