Airplane is a condition, which arises whenever the balance of air pressure in the environment and the middle ear cavity is lost, leading to malfunctioning of the ear drum and the other adjacent middle ear tissue.
This condition is characteristically seen during ascent and descent of airplane, hence it is called airplane ear. The rapid change in height as well as the change in air pressure leads to imbalance of air pressure between the middle ear cavity and the environment. This condition is also known as barotrauma, barotitis media, aerotitis media, etc.
There are several helpful measures which help to prevent as well as relieve mild to moderate cases of airplane ear, however for more severe cases professional help should be sought.
Airplane ear may affect both or one of the ears. Common presenting symptoms include
1. Mild to moderate degree of discomfort or pain in the affected ear
2. Feeling of fullness in the ear
3. Mild to moderate degree of hearing loss characterized by muffling of sound
In severe cases of airplane ear different other symptoms usually arise along with the above mentioned symptoms in exaggerated forms. These are
1. Severe degree of ear pain
2. Feeling of intense pressure in the ear similar to the feeling during being underwater
3. Moderate to severe degree of hearing loss
4. Perception of ringing sound in the ear (tinnitus) without any actual external source of sound
5. Lightheadedness (reeling sensation)
6. Feeling of nausea even episodes of vomiting
7. In severe cases bleeding from the ear may also occur
In most of the patients the symptoms of airplane ear are not that serious or bothersome and they are usually relieved following self care. However complications may arise if the symptoms are severe because of damage to the middle and internal ear.
There are some rare complications associated with airplane ear; these are
1. Permanent loss of hearing
2. Constant perception of ringing sound in the ear (tinnitus)
Factors which limit the adequate functioning of the Eustachian tube may lead to symptoms of airplane ear. Risk factors include
1. Small Eustachian tube as in children
2. Following an attack of common cold
3. Infection of the sinuses (the air filled bony cavities adjacent to the nasal cavity)
4. Allergy (hay fever)
5. Infection of the middle ear (otitis media)
6. Sleeping during ascent or descent of an airplane
7. Past history of severe airplane ear may damage the ear tissue and the Eustachian tube leading to increase chance of facing the symptoms of airplane ear under certain situations