How to Unpop Your Ears

Making Your Flight Easy on the Ears: How to Unpop Them

The bags are packed, the tickets are booked, and your family's all ready for the big trip ahead. But there's one last thing you might have forgotten to prepare for: ear pain.

Ear discomfort comes with the territory of high-altitude travel—flying, of course, but it can also happen when driving in the mountains. When your body climbs (or falls) in altitude faster than it takes for your inner ear to adjust to the changing air pressure, your eardrum swells, causing congestion in the inner ear's eustachian tube. This can result in pain and muffled hearing, which is no fun for anybody—especially kids.

Luckily, there are ways to prevent that painful clogged sensation before taking off on your travels.

  • Antihistamine or decongestant tablets: Take the recommended dose before starting your travel, which may help limit mucus and discomfort.
  • Nasal spray: Though not recommended for long-term use, a nasal decongestant spray on the day of your air or car travel helps dry up mucus and relieve ear discomfort. Follow package directions for the proper dosages for all age levels.
  • Earplugs: Most airports and pharmacies stock air pressure-regulating earplugs, which help to slow the rate of air pressure change in the inner ear. These might be ideal for the kids, if you're hoping to avoid giving them medications.

Still, if you find yourself en route and someone in the family is experiencing ear troubles, you'll want to know how to alleviate the discomfort as soon as possible. To do this, you'll want to find ways to open up that eustachian tube and equalize the air pressure inside and outside the ear. Try the following methods:

  • Otovent balloon: This is created specifically for kids. Otovent is a small balloon your child can blow up, using one nostril at a time to open the eustachian tube, alleviating symptoms.
  • Gum or candy: It's easier to naturally equalize air pressure if you swallow, yawn or chew, so keep some gum or lozenges on hand. For babies, consider using a bottle or pacifier.
  • Yawning: We all know how to do this one. Yawning (or faking a yawn) can help "pop" the ear and equalize pressure.
  • Pinch your nostrils: Attempting to swallow or blow out air through the nose while pinching the nostrils can generate pressure in the back of the nose and pop the ears.
  • Heat compress: Applying a warm compress directly to the ear can help open the eustachian tube and clear out congestion. This one's most helpful for clogged ears caused by sickness, but it's still worth a shot! If you're looking to make a compress while on a plane, come prepared with two washcloths and a plastic zip-lock bag. Ask a flight attendant for warm water and use it to dampen one of the cloths; then secure the damp cloth in the zip-lock. Wrap the plastic bag in the dry cloth and press the compress to the bothersome ear. It should retain heat for about 20 minutes.

If your child has experienced ear problems and had his or her ear tubes placed, you might recall the secondhand struggles of ear pain and find yourself hesitant to take the family anywhere by plane. It's understandable. But fortunately for everyone, those ear tubes should actually help you and your child: An ear tube creates an extra, synthetic eustachian tube, which usually eliminates the risk of ear discomfort during altitude changes—so that's one less thing to worry about.