It makes babies howl inconsolably on flights and sometimes during takeoff or landing I have the urge on the plane to just let myself collapse and do the same. That acute pain of ear pressure doesn’t discriminate.
I recently took a flight on the verge of a full-blown cold and my ears just wouldn’t freaking pop no matter how wide I yawned or how hard I chewed my gum. A few years ago one of my ears never popped even after a few days on land and morphed into a dull pain that drove me to visit the doctor. It turned out to be a cold and had “moved into my ear” because of the flight (a great diagnosis).
The doctor went on to tell me that blowing air hard out through my ears by plugging my nose and closing my mouth is pretty dangerous. Dangerous like I could have ruptured my eardrum and caused irreparable damage. Some days of nasal spraying got me back to normal but plugged ears are something I started to pay attention to from then on.
It is time to get things straight on the phenomenon of ear popping.
Pressure differences, right? But let’s really get into it. Our bodies usually adjust to pressure changes smoothly without us noticing but when we’re doing something like plummeting through the air or diving deep into the ocean, our mechanics often can’t keep up as quickly. This is the pressure people often feel on take-off, descent, or even if you’re just driving up a mountain. The pressure difference and that uncomfy feeling, if you’re curious, is called barotrauma.
Most of the time, our body can adjust to the differences in the atmosphere. Gizmodo explains:
We’ve evolved to be able to shrug off the weight of the atmosphere and our ability to hear actually requires it. See, sound waves are transmitted from the outer ear to the inner ear through the eardrum. This thin vibrating membrane acts as a barrier to liquids but allows atmospheric reverberations to pass through, however this requires that the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum be roughly equal.
By nature of how our ears work, air is always trapped in our middle ears. When the pressure changes—higher up, the air is less dense and vice versa—it makes our eardrums push inward or outward.
|Plane is||Air becomes||Air in MIDDLE ear is||Eardrum is pushed|
|Taking off||Less dense||More dense||Outward|
|Landing||More dense||Less dense||Inward|
When the pressure equalizes (the pop), what’s basically happening is that air is being released through the middle ear to the throat via Eustachian tubes. Our ears, nose and throats are all hooked up, which is why something like yawning or chewing gum can help alleviate the situation.
Going through a tunnel on a train the situation is actually slightly different. According to Physics.org, the tunnel squeezes the air at the front of the train, creating a high-pressure situation, so it’s not exactly the same phenomena that happens with a plane.
Most of the time I board the plane and hope for the best with my ears, doing little more than chomping on a piece of gum during liftoff.
For a mom dealing with an upset child, doctors recommend a bottle or pacifier… or even breastfeeding. I have no problem with a mom breastfeeding her child on a plane but I’m sure someone would end up taking offense. I guess the big question is, which situation would you prefer sitting near? Breastfeeding or screaming baby?
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