Airplane ear (barotrauma or barotitis media)
Signs and symptoms
Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears. Signs and symptoms may include:
If airplane ear is severe or prolonged, you may experience:
Airplane ear occurs when your eardrum bulges outward or retracts inward as a result of a change in air pressure. Air in your middle ear is constantly absorbed by the lining inside the ear and resupplied through the eustachian tube. As this occurs, air pressure on both sides of your eardrum stays about equal.
When your eustachian tube is blocked, air pressure on either side of your eardrum isn't the same. The pressure in your middle ear can't be equalized, and your ear feels plugged. When this happens, your eardrum can't vibrate normally, so sounds are muffled or blocked. You may also have ear pain resulting from your eardrum being stretched.
The common cold is a frequent cause of a blocked eustachian tube that results in airplane ear. Other factors that can lead to airplane ear include a sinus infection or a nasal allergy, such as hay fever. A stuffy nose often involves stuffy ears because your swollen membranes block the opening of the eustachian tube.
Children are especially vulnerable because the eustachian tube in a child's ear is narrower than that in an adult's, making blockage more common. Scuba divers and mountain climbers often experience barotrauma. Water-skiers, too, are vulnerable. Being slapped or hit on the ear can also cause a rapid change in pressure within the ear. Water-skiers may experience this when falling and hitting the water at high speeds.
When to seek medical advice
If your symptoms don't disappear within a few hours or if pain persists, see your doctor. He or she can examine your ear and, if indicated, refer you to a doctor who specializes in the care of ear disorders (otolaryngologist). See your doctor if you develop new signs and symptoms, especially fever, severe ear pain or drainage from your ear.
Screening and diagnosis
Your doctor will examine your ear to determine if you've experienced barotrauma, using a lighted instrument to look inside your ear. A slight outward or inward bulging of your eardrum indicates barotrauma. If your condition is severe, there may be blood behind your eardrum. Severe barotrauma sometimes is difficult to distinguish from an ear infection.
Possible complications of airplane ear include:
Airplane ear usually isn't serious and responds to self-care. Hearing loss is almost always temporary.
Treatment of airplane ear focuses on relieving your symptoms. If self-care attempts don't relieve your discomfort within a few hours or if the condition is severe, you may need to see a doctor. Your doctor may suggest these treatments: