Health Library

Ears and Airplane Travel, Earwax, and Ear Cleaning

Ears and air travel

Anatomy of the ear

When many people travel by air, their ears may not pop as the altitude changes. It is one of the most common medical complaint of airplane passengers. It is caused by an air pocket in the middle ear that is sensitive to changes in air pressure. The changing altitude as the plane takes off or lands can cause discomfort in the ears.

Swallowing or yawning usually can help "pop" the ears. This activates the muscle that open the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the back of the nose. However, ears that are already blocked (by a cold, for example) can't equalize the air pressure in the middle ear adequately. This creates a vacuum that sucks the eardrum in and stretches it. When the eardrum can't vibrate, sound is muffled and the stretched eardrum can be very painful.

If swallowing or yawning does not relieve the ears, try the following ear-clearing technique:

  • Pinch the nostrils shut.

  • Breathe in through the mouth.

  • Force the air into the back of the nose as if trying to blow your nose.

If you hear a pop, the ears are unblocked. You may need to repeat this process several times, especially during the plane's descent. After landing, if the ears fail to open and the pain persists, see a healthcare provider who specializes in ear problems.

Small children are especially vulnerable to blocked ear canals because their eustachian tubes are narrower. Use of a bottle or pacifier during take-off and landing may help pop their ears. Try to keep small children awake during a descent.

What is earwax?

Earwax, also called cerumen, is naturally produced by the outer part of the ear canal to keep the ear clean. It does this by trapping dust and sand particles before they reach the eardrum. Wax also coats the fragile skin of the ear canal and acts as a water repellent. A buildup of wax usually moves its way to the ear opening, dries up, and falls out.

How should I properly clean my ears?

Normally, ears canals are self-cleaning and should not need cleaning with any devices or cotton-tipped swabs. Cleaning the ear can cause problems by pushing the earwax deeper into the ear canal and against the eardrum. However, sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In the case of a blocked ear canal, consult your healthcare provider. He or she may be able to do one or more of the following:

  • An irrigation of the ear canal to wash out the wax

  • A vacuuming of the ear canal to remove the wax

  • The use of a special instrument(s) to remove the wax

  • Prescription eardrops or mineral oil to soften the wax

Always consult your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and for more information.