Airplane ear is the condition, in which you feel air pressure inside the ear. This usually occur when you are traveling in an airplane, when the vehicle, in which you are traveling is passing through a tunnel or entering in to a hyperbaric oxygen chambers, etc.
There is a connection between the throat where nasal cavity ends through the tube like structure, the Eustachian tube. This tube, normally maintains a balance between the air pressure within the middle ear cavity and the environment through opening and closing of the Eustachian tube. Whenever there rapid change in the surrounding air pressure the opening of the Eustachian tube may not seal the middle ear cavity quickly enough leading to the symptoms of airplane ear.
Other than during ascent and descent of airplane, symptoms of airplane ear may arise under circumstances where, there is rapid change in the environmental pressure. Such circumstances include scuba diving, entering hyperbaric oxygen chambers or being in close proximity of explosion site. Sometimes traveling in the elevator of a very tall building or driving up or down a mountain may lead to similar symptoms.
Usually the symptoms of airplane ear resolves on its own however if the symptoms persist or are severe in nature, certain treatment options are available. These are
1. Drugs: these drugs help in proper functioning of the Eustachian tube. The drugs include both over the counter available medications as well as prescription drugs. These are decongestant agents in the form of oral preparations or nasal sprays, oral antihistaminics etc. Soemtimes to relieve pain and discomfort non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or other pain killers like acetaminophen are prescribed.
2. Surgical intervention is required in severe cases. A small incision is made on the ear drum (myringotomy) to normalize air pressure and drain fluid from the middle ear.
There are certain preventive measures which can help in prevention of airplane ear. These are
1. Yawning or sucking a candy helps in proper functioning of the muscles which keep the Eustachian tube open
2. Doing the Valsalva maneuver during ascent and descent of airplane. In this maneuver the nose is blown with keeping the mouth and nostrils closed.
3. Avoid sleeping during ascent and descent of airplane
4. Using drugs like decongestants either in oral form or as nasal spray. Although oral decongestant agent should be used cautiously in people with heart disease. Use of anti allergy drugs may also help
5. Using of ear plugs are also helpful
In children swallowing should be encouraged although decongestant drugs should be avoided.
In people who are at risk of repeated attacks of airplane ear doctors may consider placement of plastic tubes in the eardrum to maintain adequate air pressure in the middle ear cavity, prevent fluid collection and drain fluid, if collection occurs.