Flying with a cold, do EarPlanes ear plugs work?

Everybody (especially parents with young children) can tell you, flying with a cold is torture to your ears. Air is thinner at higher altitudes. Whilst the plane cabin is pressurised, air pressure inside the cabin is about equivalent to outside air pressure at 6000-8000 feet (1800-2400 metres). When the plane descends, the outside pressure starts increasing, pushing the ear drum inwards, causing pain and muffled hearing. In severe cases it can lead to ear drum perforation. The Eustachian tube (a tube that goes from behind the ear drum to the back of the nose) opens, causing air to rush into the middle ear behind the ear drum, thus equalising the pressure. A "pop" sound is often heard when this happens. 

Image courtesy Health writings

How to open the Eustachian tube (how to "pop" your ear)?

  • Yawning
  • Swallowing/drinking
  • Chewing (chewing gum or food), big chewing actions work better
  • Sucking (dummy, lolly, or straw)
  • Head tilting
  • Valsalva manoeuvre - hold nose closed and blow against the blocked nostrils (don't blow too hard though because the pressure built up can potentially damage structures inside the ear)
  • Toynbee manoeuvre - hold nose closed and swallow
  • Lowry technique - combination of Valsalva and Toynbee, hold nose closed, blow and swallow at the same time
  • Frenzel manoeuvre - close nose and vocal cords, then use tongue as a piston to drive air into the Eustachian tube liking making a K sound, or imagine trying to use the tongue to drive through the back of the head

Healthy Eustachian tubes should open with the above methods. It is important to start doing these manoeuvres early in the descent as the bigger the pressure difference, the harder it is to open the Eustachian tubes.

Some people have naturally narrow tubes (especially children), or the tubes may be blocked by swelling or mucus from a cold or allergies. If possible you should avoid flying if you have a cold. Or you can try to help relieve the blockage by the following:

  • Fess (saline) nasal spray - use as often as required
  • Nasal decongestant spray - use an hour prior to estimated arrival time
  • Oral decongestant tablet eg pseudoephedrine (beware not everyone can take this esp if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure, also it is banned in certain countries) - use 2-3 hours prior to flight
  • Oral antihistamine tablets

I had a cold when I flew to Uluru recently. On the way there I was able to unblock my left ear but I could not pop my right one no matter how hard I tried. It was very painful and I could not hear well out of that ear. It took a day before my ear finally popped and the situation rectified itself.

Before flying back I was worried that my ears would misbehave and cause pain again. A tour mate had a spare pair of EarPlanes ear plugs and recommended that I try them.


EarPlanes, what are they and do they work?

EarPlanes consist of two elements, silicone ear plug and ceramic pressure regulator. It forms a seal in the external ear canal, and as the plane ascends and descends, air will slowly flow through the pressure regulator. Basically it slows down the rapid pressure change so that your Eustachian tube has more time to work to equalise the pressure. Afterall, a big pressure difference may cause the Eustachian tube to be sucked closed and therefore harder to open.

I put them in before the aircraft door closed as directed, and again before the aircraft started descending. It was comfortable to wear. Because of my cold my right ear was not popping and I could feel the pressure building and the discomfort mounting once again. Many Valsalva attempts later, a few minutes before landing, my right ear finally popped with a sharp pain.

I think all EarPlanes do is to buy time for your Eustachian tubes to equalise the pressure. They do not replace any of the above pressure equalisation manoeuvres. They certainly will not help if your tubes are blocked from a cold or allergies. EarPlanes didn't work for me and I don't think I'll use them again personally, but it may perhaps be useful for someone with naturally very narrow Eustachian tubes. But I think the real key is, start equalising early and frequently, and use decongestants or avoid flying if your Eustachian tubes are blocked.


8 comments :

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