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ear pressure, ear pop, ear pain, ear infection, ear fullness

Flying with ear pain: is it a good idea?

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 feel that familiar “pop” in your ear. 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. If 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 a trigger, while the causes of the problem generally stem from illnesses which cause the tube to become inflamed and irritated, such as common cold, runny nose, sinusitis, or fluids that remain blocked inside the Eustachian tube. 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.

Recognizing possible problems of the Eustachian tube is essential if you are planning to fly, scuba dive, go to the mountains, or even ride a train. Every time you need to equalize the inside pressure and the outside pressure, you would risk to provoke a painful and dangerous tear in your eardrum.

Most Eustachian tube problems are not serious, they do not require immediate medical attention, they only last for a short period of time and resolve on their own. However, if you notice that the problem is not clearing up on its own, or if you are planning to travel by plane or train, you should seek medical attention.

A brief examination with a general practitioner can be sufficient for a first diagnosis. If the problem is severe and there is the need of a thorough examination, it would be better to find an ENT specialist. This doctor is specialised in treatment of ear, nose and throat and is best suited for treating cases of serious ear infection or Eustachian tube problems. As otitis, ear infections and other ear problems are very common in children, a pediatrician can also help with defining the appropriate course of action.

An effective treatment is based on a balanced use of nose sprays, decongestants, antihistamines or, in some cases, antibiotics. 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!

An effective treatment is based on a balanced use of nose sprays, decongestants, antihistamines or, in some cases, antibiotics. 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.