Ears and Airplane Travel, Ear Wax, 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 air pressure changes. 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 (activating the muscle that opens the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the back of the nose) and ease the discomfort. 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.

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.

What is ear wax?

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. Accumulated wax usually migrates to the ear opening, dries up, and falls out.

How should ears be properly cleaned?

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 ear wax 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 health care provider. He or she may recommend 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 health care provider for a diagnosis and for additional information.