Airplane ear: 5 detailed tips to pop your ear (that work like a charm)

illustration of two airplanes

You are about to land in Rome, at the end of a long flight, ready to enjoy the city tours and the local Dolce Vita.

You are tired and sleepy and you suddenly notice that your ear feels clogged and muffled. 

You wait for that familiar “pop” that won’t come. 

The miracle of ear popping

Have you ever wondered what part of your body is responsible for this process? 

Now you know, it’s your Eustachian tube.

The Eustachian tube connects the inside of the ear to the back of the throat and nose. 

Its job is to regulate the air pressure from outside and inside the ear, preventing the eardrum from bulging in or out. 

When it does its job it’s like magic: no ear pressure, no crackling sounds. 

Why my ears won't pop?

When the Eustachian tube is not functioning properly and there is a sudden change in the air pressure, there can be severe ear pain and possibly hearing loss.

Altitude and air pressure changes are just a trigger. 

The causes of the problem generally stem from respiratory illnesses.

Common cold with runny nose, sinusitis, may cause fluids and secretions to be blocked inside the Eustachian tube. 

The tube becomes inflamed and sticky and soon air is trapped and cannot force its way out of the middle ear

Ear infections often occur simultaneously and cause strong pain in the ear. Symptoms include: excessive ear pain and pressure, difficulty hearing, ringing within the ear or feeling dizzy.

Tips to avoid airplane ear

A preventive treatment is based on a balanced use of nose sprays, decongestants and oral antihistamines prior to flying. 

These medications can be found at any pharmacy but there are other tricks to help you popping your ears after a flight. 

  1. Chewing gum or sucking on hard candies.
  2. Swallowing (e.g. sip water frequently). 
  3. Using special ear plugs, that can be bought at any airport, and have been designed to reduce the pressure changes during the flight
  4. Trying the Valsalva maneuver (positive pressure against a closed nose). This can equilibrate pressure in the middle ear to the outside and sometimes force air from the inside of the nose to the middle ear. 
  5. Steaming. Boil a pot of water and inhale the steam to help reduce the thickness of the secretions inside your ear. 

When seeing a doctor is the right thing to do


In some cases, medical treatment is required. 

If you have already planned a flight and have severe pain even on the ground, you should schedule a visit with an ENT specialist to make sure you are not going to damage your eardrums. 

If your condition does not allow you to fly safely, it’s always better to change traveling plans. The doctor can issue an “unfit to fly” certificate to use for insurance refund claim purposes.  

The most important part is to be aware of your condition and assess in time the potential damage to the ear. 

So next time you are flying over Rome, besides trying to spot the Coliseum, take a minute to listen to what your ears are trying to tell you with their pop!

Still got doubts?

DoctorsinItaly Team

This article was written, curated, and updated by the DoctorsinItaly team, as part of our efforts to share relevant and current information on health and wellness related topics, as well as on life as an expat or traveler in Italy.