What is barotrauma? Barotrauma is the effect a rapid change in external air or water pressure has on body cavities. The reason for this effect is the difference between internal and external pressures. The middle ear is the most common space affected by an imbalance. However, your sinuses, lungs or body wide (decompression sickness) are potential sites as well. Explosions, descending from altitude and diving deep underwater are typical situations that cause barotrauma.
This health blurb solely discusses ear barotrauma, also known as airplane ear because most who fly will experience some ear discomfort on the descent for landing. Yet, driving down off a high mountain or scuba diving can create a problem within your ears too.
The most frequent causes for ear barotrauma to occur is slow acting or blocked Eustachian tubes. These tubes run between your middle ear and the back of your upper throat. As such, they are the means for balancing pressure between your inner ear and the outside air. Clog them up and you’ll suffer symptoms due to a pressure difference. Having a common cold, upper respiratory infection, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, nasal congestion or otitis media increase your risk of Eustachian tube blockage.
A pressure gradient between your middle ear and the outside can create a vacuum that pulls the eardrum in, which causes symptoms of ear pain, muffled hearing and a stuffed ear feeling. A severe case of airplane ear can cause hearing loss, vertigo and tinnitus symptoms. Rarely a perforated eardrum can occur, resulting in bleeding or fluid leaking from the ear.
Most often, you can relieve symptoms of ear barotrauma by swallowing, yawning or plug your nose and blow. These actions help open your Eustachian tubes to get some air. This simple treatment is usually all that’s necessary. And eardrum perforations often heal on their own, but it can take a month or so. If your eardrum fails to heal after two months, you should visit your health care provider to assess the need for surgical treatment.
To prevent airplane ear while you have a cold, infection or allergy, take a decongestant or antihistamine about an hour before your flight. These drugs can help keep your Eustachian tubes open. Other tips for avoiding barotrauma are:
- chew gum
- suck on candy
- use filtered earplugs
- no alcohol or caffeine
- drink water to avoid dehydration
- stay awake during take-off & landing
For most, airplane ear quickly resolves. But if your symptoms persist, seek treatment from your doctor.