Airplane Ears

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Filip from Sweden has a question about an unpleasant accompaniment to flying:

My question is simple but yet hard to explain. It’s about the phenomenon “blocked ears,” or “cap of the ears” or whatever you might call it. You know when you land with an airplane and you feel there’s pressure inside your ear and after a while . . . the “bubble” bursts.

I guess you understand what it is I’m referring to. So, my question is, what is it really called? . . . What’s right, in both English and Latin?

I certainly know what Filip is referring to. Once my ears remained blocked for more than a week after a flight. That’s when I began carrying a big package of gum when flying. I chew furiously at take-off and upon landing. That seems to do the trick for me. No more blocked ears.

Since I didn’t know the medical term for this phenomenon, I decided to call it “airplane ears.” Apparently that’s a term that other people use. Here’s the definition from the Mayo Clinic site:

Airplane ear is the stress exerted on your eardrum (tympanic membrane) and other middle ear tissues when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. You may experience airplane ear at the beginning of a flight when the airplane is climbing or at the end of a flight when the airplane is descending. These fast changes in altitude cause air pressure changes and can trigger airplane ear.

Airplane ear is also called ear barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media.

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14 thoughts on “Airplane Ears”

  1. Wow, it’s nice discovering your site online.well i will like you guys to be updating me with your enchanting articles from now on.Also as a communication student, i will like to know all those wonderful articles for my profession. THANKS

  2. Not English-related, but for those who don’t know: chewing chewing gum while on your flight/as you land avoids this.

  3. Most people simply say, “my ears just popped/are popping”. It happens on road trips when going in a mountainous region as well.

  4. When I was flying in the Air Force many years ago, we were taught to perform a “Valsalva” to clear our ears. I looked on Wikipedia to see if someone had created an entry and I found it. I recommend you check for “Valsalva maneuver” for the technique. I think it works best for the decent, and landing phases of flight.

  5. I have to agree with the above poster: I always say “my ears just popped.”

    If someone were to mention “barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media,” I would have to hit the dictionary.

  6. The easiest way of getting the problem off is to keep swallow saliva or any other fluid while taking off or landing. It works 100%

  7. It’s even more pronounced for SCUBA divers. In fact, a diver’s ears can be seriously damaged at only a few feet of depth. There is a solution all divers know: hold your nose and blow “inward,” as if you are trying to inflate your head (which, in a way, is exactly what you are doing). This wil make your ears pop. Divers call it “clearing your ears.” I do it not only underwater, but in mountains, on airplanes, and even on high elevators.

    (Wow, that last sentence made me sound so adventurous… truthfully, I don’t experience any of those things—not even the high elevators—very often.)

  8. Another word for clearing your ears is “equalizing” the air pressure. Divers can feel the pressure in the first ten feet, or less, of depth. Holding your nose and blowing as Ginko described is the way to equalize. You have to equalize quickly and keep doing it all the way down. In airplanes, I can “pop” my ears by yawning, or working my jaw as if I’m yawning, which seems to help open the canals and let the pressure equalize. If you have a sinus infection, equalizing can be much more difficult.

  9. @Kathy, this is called vocabulary. You need to know many words to be able to write efficiently in a wide range of contexts.

  10. Not English-related, but for those who don’t know: chewing chewing gum while on your flight/as you land avoids this.

    Chewing gum doesn’t do anything. Swallowing is what helps. Chewing gum may entail swallowing often, but you don’t need the gum!

  11. I have to agree with Kris ie swallowing saliva or liquids. Last time I was on a plane I swallowed lots of liquids. I don’t remember getting off the plane although I had a sore head for some days!

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