The Ear Thing

My friend who is a scuba diver explains it as the pressure on our ear drums changes with depth (in his case) or with changes in altitude while on an airplane. Kids get bothered by this it seems more than adults. Babies especially are unhappy with the pressure changes and, being babies, cannot easily be told what to do to make it better.

You're older, so I'll share some tips with you. Chew sugarless gum (ah heck, sometimes bubble gum is OK too I guess). Work on a lollipop, or a pacifier, or a bottle of milk.

Yawn. Laugh. It really does help.

For smaller kids, I'd highly recommend a pacifier. Stick it in just before take-off and again as soon as the pilot says you're about to start your descent. The constant sucking helps balance out the pressure. Bottles or even breast feeding work well too.

If your child has an ear infection, or just a cold, you will do best see a doctor pre-flight because ears already stuffed up and hurting are going to get way more uncomfortable as the plane climbs and descends. Consult a physician about decongestant nose drops.

Sad to say, crying also helps equalize the pressure and for really small kids may be the only route away from the discomfort (that also is meant to be a morale builder for you, in that you should remember that as your child is crying most of the way from Honolulu to San Francisco at least part of the time he is equalizing the pressure in his ears).

Lots of hugs and the occasional tickle can calm a child facing an unfamiliar pain, and help stop the crying that can continue long after the pressure problem has gone away.

Experts Say…

However, let's hear from the experts, the people who fly all the time, professional flight crew folks. Here is what a very thoughtful reader, who also works for American Airlines, had to say:

“We've all experienced the feeling—pain, pressure and popping in your ears while you fly. In fact, ear problems are one of the most common medical complaints of airline travelers. So, how do you do away with ear pains? Who would know better about relieving ear pressure than flight attendants? According to an August 2004 survey of 2,620 American Airlines flight attendants, there are ways to help lessen ear pain. When asked for the best way to alleviate ear pressure in flight, flight attendants gave the following expert advice:

  1. Yawn, Chew or Swallow – 53%
  2. Perform Valsalva maneuver 1 – 36%
  3. Over the counter decongestant – 10%
  4. Ear plugs – 1%

1 The Valsalva maneuver is performed by attempting to forcibly exhale while keeping the mouth and nose closed, kind of like what you do when you hold your nose going off the diving board.

American Airlines also has their own page on children traveling by air.

Ear Plugs

As noted, the traditional method for kids too young to follow directions to swallow hard a few times is to cry until things get better. There may be a better way.

Though we have not had a chance to use it ourselves yet, Cirrus Health Care sells special pressure-regulating earplugs that can help reduce discomfort associated with altitude changes. The plugs are sold in Walmart and K-Mart in the U.S., at Boots in the UK and, of course, on-line.

If you use these and they work, please let me know and I'll share your comments with others. Alternatively, you can enter you comment directly at the bottom of the page.

For example, one parent wrote:

We bought and used these plugs for our family when we went to Europe a couple of years ago. Our personal experience was that they were not too effective…these was based on our kids experience and my own. They may have provided some relief, but it was still painful to land. We have had much better luck using Afrin nose spray before the flight.

However, a second parent wrote:

The ear plugs work—we just tried them on a trip to Florida. My son had ear infections as a baby, and flying has always been difficult for him. Last year we did a trip to Texas by train because of the problem. Worse during landing than take off, but very bad—he's a pretty tough kid, but he would cry quietly. I had bought ear plugs for a trip to Istanbul last October, and let him use them (I wanted them for noise control). They worked unbelievably well—he had no problems for the first time ever (we fly at least twice a year) and enjoyed the trip—he was like a new person and this was a new experience. I would highly recommend ear plugs—gum never really worked, nor did yawning or laughing but these were wonderful. Without them, I would probably chosen to have him stay stateside rather than go to his brother's wedding.

One More Suggestion

One reader recently wrote in (thanks Heather!) to recommend eucalyptus oil. She writes:

Qantas Airways has sachets called Inhalents which uses this idea. They're like a KFC sachet for your hands but have a tissue/paper soaked in Eucalyptus oil. You start breathing the oil vapours up through your nose and it clears out your ears and nose. If the airline doesn't supply it, just buy a small bottle of the oil (we have it here in our supermarkets) for a few dollars and put some on a tissue. It's a great natural solution for all ages.

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