Airplanes and the Eustachian Tube

Extreme air-pressure changes in the airplane cabin during ascent and descent affect the functioning of the Eustachian tube, which is located within the middle ear, near the back of the nose. The Eustachian tube is made of muscle, which regularly contracts to allow pressure to equalize in the nose and middle ear space. We can manually force this tube open by chewing, yawning, swallowing, or pinching our nose and gently blowing to “pop” the ears.

However, an adult with a cold or sinus congestion may have tissue swelling, which prevents normal opening of the Eustachian tube and pressure equalization while flying.

As the airplane climbs after taking off, air pressure in the cabin drops (air becomes thinner as altitude increases). As air pressure decreases, positive pressure increases behind the eardrum. The Eustachian tube “equalizes” this positive pressure via a natural opening process. As the airplane reaches cruising altitude, our ears typically feel fine.

As the airplane descends, we are most likely to feel unpleasant effects in our ears (such as pressure and popping). This occurs because as air pressure in the cabin increases again and negative pressure builds behind the eardrum. Negative pressure feels worse to us than positive pressure, as it essentially sucks and seals the Eustachian tube closed.

If you are experiencing ear fullness or pain and you cannot manually equalize (or “pop”) the pressure in your ears 48 hours after flight descent, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or ENT.

Leave a reply