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Airplane ear (barotrauma or barotitis media)
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Airplane ear  (barotrauma or barotitis media) 


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Signs and symptoms

Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Discomfort or pain in your ear

  • Feeling of fullness or stuffiness in your ear

  • Slight hearing loss

  • Ringing in your ear (tinnitus)

  • Bleeding from your ear

  • Dizziness

If airplane ear is severe or prolonged, you may experience:

  • Middle ear pain

  • A feeling of pressure in your ear, as if underwater

  • Moderate to severe hearing loss


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.

Risk factors

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:

  • Ruptured or perforated eardrum

  • Ear infection

  • Hearing loss

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:

  • Medications. Decongestant nasal sprays, oral decongestants or oral antihistamines may relieve nasal congestion and allow your eustachian tube to open. Antibiotics may prevent ear infection if barotrauma is severe.

  • Surgery. If your eustachian tube won't open with other treatments, you may need surgery. Your doctor can make an incision in your eardrum to allow pressure to equalize and fluid to drain (myringotomy). However, surgery is rarely necessary. Occasionally, doctors surgically place tubes in the eardrum if frequent altitude changes are unavoidable or if you're susceptible to airplane ear.



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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
In no event will The DrEddyClinic.com be liable for any decision made or action taken in reliance upon the information provided through this web site.



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Last Modified : 03/14/08 06:46 PM