Why do our ears pain on increased height?


Have you ever experienced a sharp pain in your ears while your air-travel or on high altitudes. Was the pain more severe during takeoff or landing!!!? Ear pain is one of the most common complaints of the passengers during air travel or while going on heights which are often accompanied by uncomfortable feeling of fullness or pressure. Ear pain is due to the pressure imbalance at altitude variation. By knowing this you can learn to equalize air pressure and make your travel easier and painless.

How do ears function?

Have you ever felt a blocking sensation in your ears or popping or clicking sound when you swallow? Actually to understand it we should first know how do our ears function. Our ear is made up of three parts- outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Outer ear is what we see outside; Middle ear is the canal that connects the outer ear and inner ear. Our ear is also connected with the nasal cavities and the throat. Middle ear acts as an equalizer as it balances the pressure between outer ear and inner ear. We usually hear a clicking or popping sound in the ear when we swallow something or even take a sip of water. This happens because the air bubble reaches the middle ear through the Eustachian tube which connects the middle ear with the nasal cavities. This causes a difference in air pressure between outer and inner ear and hence we feel blocking sensation.

Eustachian tube acts as a buffer and helps equalize air pressure by absorbing air. The blockage of Eustachian tube causes a pressure imbalance. The most common cause for Eustachian tube blockage is common cold or sinusitis. The blockage of Eustachian tube causes a negative pressure or vacuum in the middle ear which causes the stretching of the ear drum. This stretching causes pain in the ear.

Why do ears pain when we air travel?

When we air travel the air pressure changes rapidly as the plane takes off from ground or as it transcends upwards. The atmospheric pressure is higher at ground and starts falling as we transcend upwards or vice-versa in a short span of time. This does not give enough time to the body to acclimatise to the changing sudden air pressure and hence the Eustachian tube gets blocked. The blockage of the eustachian tube causes the negative pressure or vacuum in the middle ear which causes stretching of the ear drum. This stretching causes pain or blockage of the ear. The stretching of the ear drum also interferes with the normal hearing. Every noise sounds blurred or muffled. The blockage of the tube for a longer period causes the fluid to seep into it to cause equilibrium which causes serious otitis or aero-otitis. It may cause a hearing problem and even permanent damage in hearing. The same happens when we go on mountains or high altitudes as the atmospheric pressure there also changes.

Self-help tips for blocked ears

Ears usually get blocked at sudden increase or decrease in altitude because of altered air pressure. This is very common in air travel during takeoff and landing. Now you need not worry as here are simple self to do exercises that can prevent blocking of ears during air travel.

  • You can try sucking on hard sugar candies or try chewing a gum just before takeoff and landing as this helps in keep the Eustachian tube open. It also helps while you are travelling uphill.
  • If you don’t have any of these, imitate the action as if you are swallowing on something. It also helps to keep the eustachian tube open.
  • Do not sleep during descent as you won’t be alert enough to keep the swallowing process going. But if you feel too dizzy you can yawn for sure as it is an equivalent good exercise.
  • If the above said exercises are not a help to you, you can try pinching your nostrils shut as if you are trying to blow your nose. You can also try doing this with filling the air in your mouth.
  • You need to repeat these exercises often during takeoff and landing. And maybe even after your plane has landed.
  • If the problems persist even hours after landing than you should consult your healthcare provider.
  • If you are a frequent traveller your doctor might ask you to use decongestant or nasal sprays.
  • If you are a frequent traveller and have an acute problem with ears pressure equalising tubes may also be used.

Special tips when you are travelling with a baby

Since children are small and they cannot practice pressure equalization techniques themselves. It becomes your responsibility to help them.

  • If your child is less than two years and bottle feeds it is advisable to feed the baby during take-off and not letting the baby sleep during descent.
  • You can also give a pacifier to the baby.
  • For a child who is two years and above, you can give your child to suck on candies.

Are decongestants and nasal sprays really helpful?

Frequent travellers usually know the problems of air travel and it has become a trend to use decongestants or over the counter nasal sprays before descent. But are they really helpful? Yes, they are indeed very helpful as decongestant pills help shrink the membrane and prevent blockage as ears pop more easily and you can prevent blocking. But as said “Excess of everything is bad”, if taken regularly they may stop acting and may even cause more congestion. It should also be noted that if you have allergy you should take your medicine one hour before the take-off.

Since decongestant tablets and nasal sprays are available over the counter, the question arises that is it really safe to take these medications and can it be taken by everybody? No, decongestant pills and nasal sprays cannot be used by everybody although they are available as over the counter medication. Decongestant pills and sprays are strictly prohibited in people having heart disease or high blood pressure. They should also be avoided if you have or had a history of thyroid disorder or irregular heartbeat.

Physician's consent is mandatory before using these medications in people with ongoing or history of psychiatric illness and in pregnant females.


Travelling is always a nice experience when you enjoy it. A little caution and care can make your travel comfortable and easier. Before travelling always consult your physician if you are on a regular medication and take extra caution if you are having common cold, allergic rhinitis or sinusitis.

Remember and practice the above mentioned tips and make your journey beautiful and comfortable.

Hasta la vista!


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