Flying: Pain in the ears and coping strategies

Plane journeys used to be very difficult indeed for me, until a consultant ear surgeon gave me a strategy and I developed further ones for myself. If you experience any sort of pain or discomfort when flying, or are concerned that you might, I hope that my strategies may be helpful for you. I introduce them below, but first the symptoms that they address.

Symptoms of pain due to flying

  • The noise of the aircraft would partially deafen me if I was flying for any length of time. Some years ago I flew from London to Los Angeles and was almost completely deaf when I arrived. It was very scary indeed, and fortunately my hearing recovered after a night's sleep. However, that is not to be relied on!
  • Changes in the cabin pressure would cause me intense, searing pain in my ears and head.
  • After landing, I would find my own voice echoing painfully inside my head when I spoke and this was painfully louder at some orientations of my head. There was absolutely no way that I could interact with anyone meaningfully until my head cleared which could take several days.

Minimising pain in the ears from flying

Now these difficulties are things of the past, apart from when I happen to have a bad cold and can't realistically get out of a flight booking and overseas commitment that has been booked in advance.

  • My hospital consultant pointed out that the problems with changing aircraft pressure occur on the descent rather than the ascent, i.e. when the air pressure in the cabin is being increased in readiness for landing. So, he told me, start the treatment some 45 minutes before landing. Use nasal decongestant drops or spray (such as Otravine) which are readily available without prescription. Put your head right back and make sure that a few drops get right up your noise - and hence disperse into the nasal passages. In fact, I use the drops at take-off too because I have found that other variations in cabin pressure do sometimes occur.
  • The consultant also advised keeping the nasal passages more open during the descent by equalising the internal and external pressure. To do this, pinch the nostrils together every so often and blow (as if trying to puff out the cheeks). Sometimes, but not always, this makes the ears 'go pop' and is apparently more efficient than yawning and swallowing, which are also recommended. Sucking sweets seems to help encourage swallowing and is an additional strategy.
  • I used to use ear plugs to cut down the engine noise - see my review of earplugs - loosening them momentarily from time to time during descent to help equalise the internal and external pressure. Now though, I prefer to use headphones because they keep more air round the ears than ear plugs and this slightly reduces the rate of any changes in cabin pressure.
  • The headphones that I like to use are the 'noise cancelling' or noise reduction type. These produce electronically generated noise which is said to cancel out external noise. I find that they don't cancel it out completely, but are still a lot better than nothing. If, for an experiment, I lift one earpiece for a moment to see what the noise in the cabin is like, the difference is quite dramatic. Noise reduction headphones come in all prices; mine, which are perfectly satisfactory, were relatively cheap from the internet.

Reducing tension and making the flight time seem shorter

It is common nowadays to see airline passengers using headphones plugged into a computer tablet to listen to music or watch a film that has been previously downloaded from an on-demand channel. Probably their headphones are regular ones; mine of course are noise reduction ones which are entirely satisfactory for this type of listening.

Watching a film in this way - particularly as it is your own choice of one that you expect to enjoy - really does make the flight seem to go more quickly which helps to reduce tension. I download several films in advance to that I can choose the one I want at the time.

10 coping strategies for the deaf

Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.