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ear unclogging from high pressures

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Alternative Names 
ear popping

Flying in an airplane and other activities that cause sharp rises or falls in altitude can make the ears clog uncomfortably. Certain steps can help unclog the ears during unavoidable altitude changes.

Who is a candidate for the procedure? 
This procedure is helpful whenever a person feels their ears clog due to a sudden change in altitude or pressure. This might occur when:
  • flying in a plane
  • diving
  • riding in an elevator
How is the procedure performed? 
The eustachian tube runs from the back of the nose to the middle or inner ear. It helps keep air pressure roughly the same on both sides of the eardrum.

When the tube is blocked for any reason, unequal pressure in the middle ear tugs the eardrum toward the inner ear. This muffles vibration and sounds. It also causes the clogging sensation. It can be quite painful.

For relief, a person should try swallowing or yawning several times. Other tips that may make takeoff and landing in a plane more comfortable are:
  • chew gum
  • breastfeed babies and give young children a dummy or drink. A little planning can make airline travel with children more enjoyable.
  • use a decongestant as long as there is no medical reason to avoid these drugs
If these tips do not work, a person can try another procedure. The person should pinch shut both nostrils, breathe in a mouthful of air, and with the mouth closed, use the cheek and throat muscles to push the air toward the back of the nose as if trying to blow it very gently. This should not be done forcefully.

What happens right after the procedure? 
As soon as the ears seem to pop, the pressure and discomfort are relieved.

What happens later at home? 
The person generally feels back to normal after the ears clear.

What are the potential complications after the procedure? 
If a person has a cold or sinus infection, pressure changes caused by air travel or trying to unclog the ears too forcefully may raise the risk of an ear infection.

Decongestants are never to be used in association with scuba diving.

Author: Francesca Coltrera, BA
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 12/06/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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