The British Tinnitus Association - registered charity no: 1011145
information | research | local support | younger people | education & awareness | support us | training | events | about the BTA
Flying and the Ear
Jonathan Hazell FRCS
Flying comes high on the list of anxieties of people suffering from deafness and tinnitus. Most of these anxieties are unfounded and come from the almost universal experience of discomfort in the ears following an air flight.
a commercial aeroplane may be flying at over 30,000 feet, the pressure in the
cabin is controlled automatically to the equivalent of a height or around 6,500
feet. The main effect of this pressure change is on the middle ear (the part of
the ear behind the ear drum containing the small ossicles or bones which conduct
sound to the inner ear and nerve of hearing).
The middle ear
cavity is normally filled with air at the same pressure as the surrounding air.
The air in the middle ear is being continuously absorbed by the body, but each
time we swallow or yawn, the eustachian tubes (running to the back of the nose)
opens and allows air to pass into the middle ear cavity equalising the pressure.
the pressure in the aircraft cabin slowly drops, but this does not usually cause
a problem as the air in the middle ear is at a relatively high pressure and gets blown down the eustachian tube, rather like releasing the
string on a toy balloon.
pressure and gets blown down the eustachian tube, rather like releasing the
string on a toy balloon.
If there is
going to be a problem with equalising pressure in the middle ear it tends to
occur when the aircraft comes down to land. At this time the air in the middle
ear is at a lower pressure than the air in the cabin, the eustachian tube may
become blocked and the small muscles in the throat which open it may not be able
to do so. The ear drum is pressed inward and tensed resulting in a slight
discomfort. People often worry that the ear drum will be damaged by this
pressure change, but it is a very strong fibrous membrane and not easily
damaged, certainly not by relatively small and gradual changes in air pressure.
In people with
pre-existing deafness, often due to reduced nerve function, the small temporary
loss of hearing may have very dramatic effects in terms of speech
intelligibility. Usually the blockage of the eustachian tube clears of its own
accord after a short time.
Avoiding the problem
Eustachian tube function varies somewhat between individuals, and even in the same person over a period of time, but here are a few simple rules:
Make sure you are awake before the aircraft begins its decent (the initial decent from cruising altitude may be an hour or so before landing). The eustachian tube does not open effectively during sleep.
Keep swallowing, using a glass of water (or your favourite beverage!) at regular intervals - if necessary every 15 to 30 seconds. If this does not clear the ear, pinch the nose between finger and thumb and gently blow air down it with the mouth closed, but without releasing any air (the Valsalva manoeuvre).
Avoid flying with a cold (not always an easy thing to do). With a cold or other infection around the nose and throat the lining of the eustachian tube is swollen and blocks more easily. If you are forced to travel by air with a cold use nasal decongestant drops or decongestant spray (eg Otovrine) on the advice of your doctor. Use the decongestant before and during the flight.
If you are
worried about your eustachian function and whether it is normal, it is very easy
to check on this by a simple test called "Impedance Audiometry". These
devices are available at all audiology departments, and quickly and objectively
measure whether your eustachian tube is normal, and your middle ear pressure is
the same as the surrounding atmosphere. Many people who believe that they have
eustachian obstruction, or middle ear "catarrh" are often surprised to
find that their eustachian tube works quite normally when tested in this way.
Sometimes the diagnosis has been made wrongly, perhaps many years before the aid
of this accurate test.
Tinnitus and flying
vast majority of tinnitus sufferers have a small abnormality in the inner ear or
nerve of hearing which is the tinnitus generator. Loud tinnitus is caused by
amplification of these small generators in the central auditory system. The
middle ear is normally blameless, and inner ear function cannot be affected by
the changes of air pressure experienced in normal commercial aeroplanes.
people are worried that the noise of the engines will damage their ears or cause
their tinnitus to get louder. If you find the noise of the engines disturbing,
the solution is either to select a seat in front of the wing, or as a last
resort to use soft earplugs. If you have been fitted with wearable noise
generators (masking devices) it is very helpful to use them on an aeroplane to
reduce the discomfort of any loud sounds there may be. If you normally wear
hearing aids, you should also wear these during your flight, as removing them
may make your tinnitus louder and more noticeable.
In people with
hearing loss, it is often the "straining to hear" phenomenon which
makes the tinnitus louder when on board an aircraft. If eustachian blockage is
experienced during flying, then tinnitus may appear to get louder temporarily,
in the same way as it does on inserting an ear plug. On clearing the ears, the
tinnitus will return to its former level. Many people actually find that being
in the aircraft is one of the times when they are completely free of their
tinnitus because of the masking noise of the engines and airflow around the
Pressure changes and tinnitus
In some cases changes of pressure do have small and temporary effects on
tinnitus. It may change the frequency, and in some cases may temporarily
increase or decrease the loudness. The same effects can be produced by lying
flat or tilting with the head down. The majority of tinnitus sufferers do not
experience these effects, and it must be stressed that when they do occur they
are only temporary.
occasionally sudden decompression occurs in an aircraft. This can have an effect
on the inner ear. It is an extremely rare occurrence, and is usually accompanied
by disturbance of balance and hearing loss. If medical attention is sought
quickly enough, treatment is often effective. Any ear condition following a
flight that does not clear after a few hours should be seen by a doctor.
Grommets and perforations
Grommets are very small ventilation tubes used in the treatment of
certain middle ear disorders. Perforations can occur in the ear drum as a result
of infection or injury. In either case there is actually less of a problem
flying than if the ear drum is intact. This is because any change in pressure
can be equalised across the ear drum and does not depend on the eustachian tube
Ear plugs and flying
Despite all these assurances some people still remain extremely sensitive
to small changes in pressure in the middle ear. This sensitivity is usually due
to an anxiety that the ear drum may be damaged by pressure change. Sometimes the
ear drum is rather more mobile and floppy than normal, this can result in
increased discomfort during descent. While there is still no risk of damage to
the ear, the symptoms can sometimes be reduced by wearing a foam plug in the ear
This does not
stop the changes of pressure reaching the ear drum, it simply slows them down,
so that any pressure change that might occur rapidly, occurs more gradually, and
therefore reduces awareness of the sensation. The ear plug should be removed on
leaving the aircraft. Those who have hearing aids which effectively block the
ear canal may find that wearing a hearing aid has the same effect.
Flying and ear surgery
you have recently undergone middle ear surgery, or are about to do so, it is
important to check whether or not you will be allowed to fly immediately
afterwards. If the operation involves the insertion of a grommet or ventilation
tube, then there should be no problem about flying. Other operations which
involve either the grafting or perforation of the ear drum, or more particularly
the stapedectomy operation for otosclerosis, usually require a short period of
avoidance of air travel while the ear is healing. Ask your ear specialist for
people with hearing disorders and
particularly those who have tinnitus, suffer from varying degrees of depression
and anxiety. If you have been anxious in the past it is quite likely that you
are worried about flying because of the safety aspect.
use their tinnitus or hearing disorder as an excuse not to get on an aeroplane.
Statistically, flying is the safest way to travel anywhere but many people have
natural worries and anxieties about it. Discuss these anxieties with your GP, he
or she may agree that it is one of those very rare occasions where it is
appropriate to prescribe a small dose of some tranquilliser.
breathing exercises can be extremely helpful, particularly if practised
beforehand. Where there are well-established phobias about flying, British
Airways run a "desensitisation" course and they can be contacted
directly about this. If your worry is that flying may be harmful to your ears,
then in 99.9% of cases we say go ahead and enjoy your flight.
Simple foam ear plugs are available from Boots and larger chemists. Special plugs, in junior and adult sizes, which are said to help equalise pressure, are called Earplanes.
Flying and the Ear - rtf version
Flying and the Ear - pdf version
for more information about different versions, please click here.
February 2005 - © British Tinnitus Association
This information is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always see your GP / medical professional
top | home | feedback | privacy | technical help | site info | email updates | contact us | links