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Ear - blocked at high altitudes

Definition

The air pressure outside of your body changes as altitude changes. This creates a difference in pressure on the two sides of the eardrum. You may feel pressure and blockage in the ears as a result.

Alternative Names

High altitudes and blocked ears; Flying and blocked ears; Eustachian tube dysfunction - high altitude

Information

The Eustachian tube is a connection between the middle ear and the back of the nose and upper throat.

Swallowing or yawning opens the eustachian tube and allows air to flow into or out of the middle ear. This helps equalize pressure on either side of the eardrum.

Doing these things can unclog blocked ears when you are going up or coming down from high altitudes. Chewing gum the entire time you are changing altitudes helps by causing you to swallow often. This may prevent your ears from getting blocked.

People who always have blocked ears when flying may want to take a decongestant about an hour before the flight leaves.

If your ears are blocked, you can try breathing in, then gently breathing out while holding your nostrils and mouth closed. Use care when doing this. If you breathe out too forcefully, you can cause ear infections by forcing bacteria into your ear canals. You can also create a hole (perforation) in your eardrum if you blow too hard.

References

Byyny RL, Shockley LW. Scuba diving and dysbarism. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 143.

O'Reilly RC, Sando I. Anatomy and physiology of the eustachian tube. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 131.


Review Date: 8/4/2014
Reviewed By: Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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