Best Ear Care Practices for Frequent Travelers

Ear pain and clogs aren’t just annoying, they can make it hard to hear your tour guide or participate in business meetings. The issue stems from changes in air pressure that irritate the middle ear.

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize discomfort. Experts recommend yawning and swallowing, chewing gum or using the Valsalva maneuver to open up the ears and equalize the pressure.

Clean Your Ears Daily

Many people clean their ears with cotton swabs and other items that are inserted into the ears. This can cause earwax impaction and damage the ears. Generally, the ears self-clean. Earwax migrates from deeper in the ear canal to the ear canal opening where it falls out of the ear or is washed away. This wax helps preserve the ear canal and trap harmful bacteria that could get into the inner ear.

Cleaning the ears with a washcloth is much safer than using any cotton swabs that might reach into the ear canal or even the meatus (the front part of the ear). According to Dr. Chandrasekhar, you can also safely use your pinky finger to remove earwax that has accumulated at the entrance of your ear canal or the meatus.

Another way to prevent earwax impaction is to irrigate the ears with water or saline solution. However, doctors recommend avoiding over the counter ear irrigation products that contain hydrogen peroxide because this chemical can damage the eardrum. Instead, irrigate the ears with plain water or saline solution by tilting the head to one side and gently squirt the fluid into the ear canal. Then, wait a minute or so and let gravity help the fluid and earwax drain out of the ear. Repeat this daily to avoid earwax buildup. If you still notice earwax building up, talk to your doctor about this issue. A microsuction in Aberdeen is the safest way to remove ear wax that you might be interested in.

Wear Earplugs

In addition to keeping your ears healthy, earplugs can also help you relax and sleep better while traveling. Ear protection helps reduce noises that can disturb a good night’s rest and improves social connectedness by allowing you to clearly hear others around you.

Hearing damage occurs from prolonged exposure to loud sounds, and it’s typically a result of both decibel level and time of exposure. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a normal conversation reaches about 60 decibels, while street noise and a busy airplane can reach up to 85 decibels.

For many travelers, hearing protection is needed during concerts, sporting events and air travel. The best earplugs are the ones that fit properly. You can find pre-molded earplugs at most drug stores, but to ensure you get a great fit, consider having an audiologist custom-fit them for you.

You can also purchase earplugs that have special filters that help regulate air pressure on a plane, which can relieve discomfort from flying. You can also try swallowing and yawning frequently while you are on a plane to help equalize pressure in your ears, or take a decongestant spray prior to descending or landing to prevent discomfort. These techniques are particularly important if you have a cold, sinus infection or an upper respiratory problem such as a sinus headache, which may cause your ear canal to swell. This can make it more difficult to insert earplugs.

Take Decongestants Before Departure

The air pressure in your ears changes during a flight, decreasing when the plane ascends and increasing as it descends. This change in air pressure can cause ear discomfort or even a ruptured eardrum if you are congested. Over-the-counter oral decongestants may help reduce fluid buildup and ease pain. A doctor can prescribe stronger prescription medications for people with very bad congestion or allergy problems.

You should take a decongestant at least an hour before your flight, says Dr. Christopher W. Traughber, a travel medicine specialist with Immediate Medical Care Centers in Palos Verdes Peninsula and San Pedro. Taking one before the flight will also make your ears less sensitive to changing air pressure during the trip.

During the flight, chewing gum and yawning can help open your Eustachian tubes and equalize air pressure in your ears. Drinking water or another liquid frequently — especially during takeoff and descent — can help, too. Using a filtered earplug, which decreases the noise but allows you to swallow and yawn for air pressure regulation, may also ease discomfort.

Young children often experience more airplane ear pain than adults because their Eustachian tubes are narrower and can’t handle the same level of air pressure change as an adult’s. Breastfeeding or giving a child a bottle during a flight and keeping him or her sucking on a pacifier can help. Swallowing hard candy or gum may also work.

Try Chewing or Swallowing

Whether they’re flying first class or coach, most air travelers have experienced ear pain and pressure as the plane climbs or descends during take-off or landing. The discomfort, also called airplane ear or ear barotrauma, is the result of imbalance between cabin air pressure and the pressure in the middle ear. Typically, self-care strategies such as chewing gum, swallowing or the Valsalva maneuver (pinching the nose, closing the mouth and blowing out) help equalize the pressure.

Chewing gum and swallowing activate muscles that open up the eustachian tube, which runs from the back of the middle ear to the back of the throat and nose. This helps drain fluid from the ears. If you don’t have gum, yawning or sucking on hard candy work equally well to open up the tube and relieve airplane ear.

While blowing out a clogged ear can be painful, using the right technique can alleviate pressure changes in the middle ear and make your flight more comfortable. But, be cautious about trying to pop your ear with forceful methods, as it may cause damage to the eardrum. If these self-care practices aren’t effective, you should contact a healthcare professional. They might prescribe medication, including decongestants or steroids, to clear a blockage and/or antibiotics to treat an ear infection. They might recommend a procedure known as balloon dilation to open the Eustachian tube and allow air to circulate, thereby relieving airplane ear.

Use the Valsalva Maneuver

Those clogged, uncomfortable ears many travelers experience while flying are often the result of a difference in air pressure between their middle ear space and the cabin. This is a condition known as ear barotrauma and can be improved by chewing gum, swallowing or yawning, all of which encourage frequent swallowing and help equalize air pressure.

Alternatively, the Valsalva maneuver can be used to alleviate discomfort and pressure in the ears during flights. Developed in the 1700s, this technique involves trying to forcefully exhale against a closed mouth and nose. When done correctly, this method causes a quick rise in pressure that can relieve symptoms of air travel, scuba diving and other activities.

While the Valsalva maneuver is safe to perform for most people, it isn’t suitable for everyone and should only be tried under medical supervision because it could rupture your eardrum if you exhale too hard. To avoid this risk, try a less aggressive version called the Lowry Method or use a simpler technique called the Toynbee maneuver instead.

For the Lowry Method, close your mouth and pinch your nostrils shut, then blow gently through your nose while sucking in your stomach. You should hear a pop in your ears as the air pressure equalizes. The Toynbee maneuver is similar but adds the step of swallowing to stimulate the muscles needed to open your Eustachian tubes.

Steam Your Ears

Airplane ear is an everyday airplane annoyance caused by rapid changes in cabin pressure that shift the ear’s fluids and cause the ears to feel clogged. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to relieve this nagging discomfort.

Keeping your ears clean is important, but be careful not to overdo it. The ear canal is very sensitive, and excessive cleaning can actually push the earwax deeper into the ear, creating blockages. Also, it’s best to avoid using invasive objects like cotton swabs and fingernails to try to dig out earwax or other debris. This can scratch the eardrum and create a painful, dangerous hole.

A few drops of olive or mineral oil can help loosen earwax and ease the pressure in the ears, especially during flight. Another option is to yawn, talk, or chew gum to open your mouth and activate the Eustachian tube.

For more serious ear issues, an otolaryngologist or ENT (ear nose and throat) specialist can perform an ear irrigation or flush, but it’s important to follow the instructions carefully. The same goes for over-the-counter kits that contain saline solution or bulb syringes. Lastly, it’s best to seek medical attention if you experience bleeding or severe pain during your flight. Bleeding may indicate a ruptured eardrum, so this should be addressed immediately by an otolaryngologist.