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Why Do Your Ears 'Pop' During A Plane Ride?

And what to do about it.
PHOTO: istockphoto

As thrilling as traveling can be, especially if you're flying off to your dream destination, spending hours on a plane isn't exactly luxurious. You have to deal with leg cramps, rude passengers, jet lag, and on occasion, clogged ears. I still remember the first time it happened to me. I was flying to New Zealand with a cold, and nobody warned me about the consequences. Long story short, I was in actual pain a couple of hours before we landed in NZ, and it didn't subside for a while.

As you probably already know, it isn't always this bad, but it can get pretty uncomfortable. But what exactly happens when you experience "ear barotrauma" (yes, that's the official term). 

Your ear is divided into three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear (where the eardrum is), and the inner ear. The middle ear is connected to the nose and throat via the eustachian tube. This is responsible for stabilizing the air pressure levels between your nose and ear. According to otolaryngologist Dr. Ana Kim, "When we're flying, there's a rapid change in the barometric [air] pressure, which causes a collapse of the eustachian tubes and interferes with the normal air flow from the nose to the ear." So when I got on the plane with a cold, the congestion made the changes in air pressure feel worse. 

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So what should you do?

You can try "popping" your ears by closing your nose and mouth and gently blowing. Avoid blowing too hard, though, because you might rupture your cochlea, which is the organ responsible for our hearing. Moving your mouth muscles also helps, so drink water or chew a piece of gum to help reopen the eustachian tubes.

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