Ear pain after plane ascent; should I worry about problems on descent?
November 15, 2016 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend! Time-sensitive question! On the way up for this 4-hour flight, I suddenly noticed that my left ear hurts when burping or hiccuping (also when I try to pop my ears via the Valsalva manuever, which I haven't successfully done.) Any idea what's going on? Is this going to put me at risk of big-time pain when we descend, and if so, is there any way to minimize/avoid that? I've got a couple hours before we start descending...

There's no ear pain unless I do something to stress the ear (burping, etc)... it feels like some kind of membrane in there is sore or strained or something. My ears don't feel clogged/unpopped, but when I attempt the Valsalva manuever they don't pop under moderate pressure (I haven't really forced it since my ear starts hurting and I don't know if it would do more harm than good.) I do have a bit of a cold, but it's mostly a bad cough and the congestion has been pretty mild so I wasn't even thinking of that as an issue.

I'm getting anxious about things like eardrum rupture and major pain and am not getting much clarity via Google. I'd greatly appreciate any thoughts on what might have caused the initial pain and/or whether it seems likely I'll have problems when we descend. Has anyone been in a situation like this before?
posted by aether516 to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to your specific worries, but at least make sure you have something to suck on during descent, like a piece of candy. Swallowing extra often (which will automatically happen when you're sucking on a mint or something like that) will help prevent and relieve pain.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:08 PM on November 15, 2016

Ask a doctor, but your friend could take some Pseudoephedrine, that will make it easier to clear the ears. Might take some guaifenesin aka Muscinex too, it will help make their ears easier to clear (drink lots of water). (Make sure to buy the real Pseudoephedrine, if you're in the US you have to show your ID for Pseudoephedrine, the stuff labelled 'sudafed' that you can buy without showing your ID doesn't work.)
posted by gregr at 4:09 PM on November 15, 2016

I think the friend is currently mid-air, which makes things like going to the pharmacy hard, but if they have pseudoephedrine it would probably not be a terrible idea to take.

I personally would not be worried about this. Ears sometimes do weird things on planes - the vast majority of the time, they get over it when you land. A slight cold will make it more likely to do weird things. But without huge amounts of pain or anything else, then you're almost certainly fine. Drink lots of water and keep breathing.
posted by brainmouse at 4:13 PM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Pseudoephedrine is good. If you don't clear your ears you will have problems. They won't be fatal, but they will be uncomfortable. Try holding your nose and blowing into your closed mouth. If that doesn't work, do it a few more times while pushing your lower jaw forward.

I had this as a problem for years until a sinus surgery made it much more manageable. You can get headaches and minor hearing loss for a day or two, but it'll go away eventually.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:14 PM on November 15, 2016

I am the friend in question, am indeed in mid-air, and do not have pseudoephedrine, unfortunately. Will definitely swallow often as we descend.

As I mentioned, I'm feeling some pain when I try the Valsalva manuever... should I force it?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:34 PM on November 15, 2016

find decongestant and chew gum now. I've ruptured eardrums (twice!) flying commercially with congestion. You'll get some pain along your jaw, which will relieve if your ears clear. If not, lots of pain (like trying to claw your face off pain), then a wet squeak as your eardrum ruptures. Instant relief, but a few weeks of everything sounding like an underwater Miss Othmar competition, and then you'll never hear high notes clearly with that ear again.
posted by scruss at 4:39 PM on November 15, 2016

One time I had tonnes of pain in one ear mid flight and when I asked the flight attendant if they had gum the flight attendants gave me a cup with some tissues wetted with boiling water and told me to hold it to my ear. I felt like an absolute idiot but it really helped reduce the pain.

Another time they gave me a sachet of really stinky menthol stuff to sniff.

This was flying in Australia about 15-20 years ago which was a whole other world of service compared to now, but I'd still ask them just in case they can help.
posted by kitten magic at 4:40 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

And if they can't help, asking might make a nearby passenger pipe up. Those of us who get regular ear pain flying are super sympathetic and will offer up our remedies. I often hand out gum to my whole row (I get the menthol airwaves gum for flying which I don't find pleasant enough to want at any other time).
posted by kitten magic at 4:43 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had terrible ear pain during takeoff on a flight once. I remember thinking "how can I stop the plane from landing?" because the pain was so bad. The good news is that the landing didn't hurt. The bad news is that it didn't hurt because my ear drum burst. The good news is that it bursting didn't hurt (I didn't know until a doctor told me) and it healed just fine.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:53 PM on November 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

> then you'll never hear high notes clearly with that ear again

This was not my experience! Don't panic!
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:55 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

As somebody who has frequent ear pain when flying (such that I always have gum and those ear plugs to regulate ear pressure when I fly), try to get gum from somebody to chew. It also might help if you drink hot water and/or hold some hot water near your ear to help relieve pressure and drain your sinuses. Hydration helps!

Good luck!
posted by kendrak at 4:55 PM on November 15, 2016

Water is a decongestant.
posted by aniola at 4:56 PM on November 15, 2016

Agreed that congestion is the cause. If your gum supply is limited, my instinct is to wait until the descent, since your ears might clog up again anyway. Agreed that asking the nice flight attendants, loudly, would be smart.

lots of pain (like trying to claw your face off pain), then a wet squeak as your eardrum ruptures. Instant relief,

I have had this experience of pain/wet squeak/relief! Often! But luckily never this experience:

but a few weeks of everything sounding like an underwater Miss Othmar competition

so don't panic.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:57 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I always fly with sudafed. I'm not your neighbor, but I could be. Nthing to ask the attendants for some help, maybe someone near you will hear. (I'd offer some if I heard.)
Hot tea could also provide some relief (spend more time inhaling the steam than drinking the tea). And nthing staying hydrated, which is always a challenge on planes (and which the sudafed will *not* help, even if you find some).
posted by nat at 5:13 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Business and 1st class give out goody bags with earplugs....maybe you can appeal to a flight attendant if they have any extra.
posted by brujita at 5:14 PM on November 15, 2016

Rapid spray decongestant will help. Afrin or generic equivalent is good. Many others.

Ask your neighbors and attendants for any kind of decongestant.

The hackneyed "doctor on board?" to attendants couldn't hurt either.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:19 PM on November 15, 2016

Sucking on ice cubes on descent may also help. The action of sucking helps equalise your ears (just like giving a baby a bottle on descent). The cold ice in the back of your throat probably helps take down a bit of swelling if it is your Eustachian tubes (which is how our ears usually equalise) which are swollen up. I got this trick from a flight attendant, when I was flying with awful sinus cold. Just ask the Flight Attendant for a glass with some ice about 40 minutes back from landing, so they haven't put all the service items away yet. Good luck!
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 6:00 PM on November 15, 2016

Found some nasal spray and an antihistamine to take, chewed gum and did lots of swallowing and jaw-wiggling and other forms of ear-popping (I figured out if I plugged up my left ear too, then I could use the Valsalva to pop my right without causing so much pain in the left ear), and landed without incident. Thanks everyone!
posted by EmilyClimbs at 6:26 PM on November 15, 2016 [9 favorites]


I take ibuprofen or tylenol. Or aspirin. If you have actual pain and sensitivity to the pressure change, take a painkiller.

Vodka will also work in a an emergency, drink it though, not poured in your ear. Do NOT mix and painkillers or other meds with alcohol. It only hurts on ascent or descent. You can also white-knuckle it.
posted by jbenben at 7:35 PM on November 15, 2016

My father was a jet pilot and had to deal with this a lot. He preaches a method of opening up the Eustachian tubes by opening up the back of the jaw, not just yawning or swallowing. He counsels keeping the lips closed and then making the inside mouth cavity as large as possible you dropping the jaw down back under the ear.

Good luck on landing!
posted by SLC Mom at 8:13 PM on November 15, 2016

Probably too late but for the next flight...
I was once in enormous ear pain on descent. The world's best stewardess put hot wet towels in two cups and got me to put them over my ears. Worked like a charm. No idea why.
posted by chapps at 7:04 AM on November 16, 2016

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