Flying. We all know it can be a stressful experience. Busy airports. Long lines at security gates. Delays. Turbulence. Layovers. Lost luggage. Any of these can throw off even the most seasoned traveler. But some flyers have one more worry to add to the pile: tinnitus. Tinnitus sufferers are, for good reason, relentlessly conscious of activities that could affect their ears, and air travel is no exception. If noisy flights and changing air pressure have you anxious about your next trip, read on to find out what happens to your ears when you fly – and to learn ways to plan ahead so you can travel in comfort.
What Is Tinnitus?
Before we explore how to manage tinnitus while flying, let’s review what tinnitus actually is. Tinnitus is when patients hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Most people experience tinnitus as a ringing sound, but it can occur in a variety of ways. It can sound like hissing, whooshing, humming, screeching, electricity crackling or even your own heartbeat. Tinnitus can have a myriad of triggers including stress, side effects from medications, allergies, vascular conditions, even ear wax buildup. Doctors generally agree that the root cause of most cases of tinnitus is a misfiring of the nerves sending sound signals to the brain, brought on by hearing damage from repeated exposure to loud noises, old age or trauma.
How Can Air Travel Make Tinnitus Worse?
Most tinnitus patients are pleasantly surprised to find that flying does not affect their condition at all. But some people will see their tinnitus temporarily worsen or experience discomfort for one of three reasons:
- Loud noises
- Changing cabin pressure
Let’s look at each one of these factors in detail, including what they do to your body and ways to counter their effects.
Loud Noises and Tinnitus
Many tinnitus patients are concerned that noisy flights will exacerbate their symptoms. That noise is actually coming from the airplane engine. Generally, airplane engine noise is in the mid-frequency range. That’s good news; most patients experience tinnitus and are bothered by noises in the higher frequencies. While some engine noise does contain some high-frequency overtones, most tinnitus patients will not be bothered by the standard sounds of flying.
However, if you’re your tinnitus is aggravated by mid-frequency sounds or if you are very sensitive to sound, there are things you can do before you travel to make your flight more comfortable:
- Consider your seat placement: when you purchase your ticket, request a seat at the front of the plane. The engines are attached to the wings and project noise behind them. Sitting in the first few rows or even in first class will make for a much quieter flight.
- Use ear plugs: soft foam earplugs can offer you some peace and quiet. An inexpensive option, you can find them in most grocery stores, pharmacies and in airport shops and vending machines. TIP: earplugs may be especially useful during takeoff–the loudest part of any flight. You may even be able to take them out once the plane reaches cruising altitude.
- Purchase noise-cancelling headphones: a set of high-quality noise cancelling headphones will not only keep aggravating sounds at bay, but they will also provide you with some distraction as you listen to music or enjoy an in-flight movie.
Ear Pain After Flying and Changing Cabin Pressure
Past your ear canal and eardrum sits the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube runs from the inner ear to the back of the nose and throat where it can vent to air outside. This tube allows air to flow in or out of the inner ear, normalizing air pressure as needed. As an airplane climbs, the air pressure inside the cabin decreases. As it descends, the air pressure inside the cabin increases. This changing pressure can cause the eardrum to bulge outward or sway inward. This creates the feelings of pressure, plugged ears and sometimes even pain.
To counteract the effects of changing air pressure, the Eustachian tube needs to open so it can normalize the air pressure inside your inner ear. There are several things you can do to open the tube and get the air flowing, including:
- Blow your nose
- Chew gum
- Suck on a hard candy
- Drink while pinching your nose closed
- The Valsalva maneuver: breathe in. Then, pinch your nose, close your mouth and gently try to push air out your nose. You will be gently pushing air into the Eustachian tube and you should hear a “pop” and feel the pressure release.
- Use a decongestant nasal spray: this can help open the Eustachian tube, especially if it’s blocked by mucous from a cold or allergies. Use the spray about an hour before you are scheduled to land.
- Avoid sleeping during descent: we tend not to swallow when we are asleep, which means your ears may be highly pressurized and painful when you wake up upon landing.
The Damaging Effects of Stress
As stated before, flying can be a very stressful experience. Stress can be a major trigger for tinnitus episodes. In fact, studies show that the more stressed you are, the louder your tinnitus can become. But there are several things you can do in the airport and mid-flight to stop the stress cycle before it starts:
- Leave early: make sure you arrive at the airport with plenty of time so you aren’t rushing to find your gate.
- Download a meditation app: several apps can lead you through relaxing guided meditations and breathing exercises to effectively lower your anxiety and stress levels.
- Bring a distraction: catch up on a good book, watch a movie on your phone or tablet or listen to music. You’ll be distracted from your tinnitus and the time will pass more quickly.
- Ask your doctor for a prescription: particularly if you are a nervous flyer, your doctor can prescribe you a low dose of anti-anxiety medication to take as needed.