The Best Way to Treat Airplane Ear

I had to fly home from vacation with a cold, and now my ears are painfully clogged and I can't hear a thing. Help!

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I had to fly home from vacation with a cold, and now my ears are painfully clogged and I can’t hear a thing. Help!

Ouch. Airplane ear happens when there's an imbalance between the air pressure in the middle ear and the air pressure around you, which changes rapidly with the altitude during the start and end of a flight. Yawning, swallowing or chewing gum can usually fix it by letting air flow through the eustachian tubes—the narrow passages between the middle ear and the back of the nose—equalizing the pressure. But a cold or sinus infection complicates things because congestion can block the tubes. Result: painful pressure and hearing problems.

To clear the clog, you need an over-the-counter decongestant to encourage drainage; a nasal spray may also help calm any swelling that's adding to the problem. Also try taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat related pain. (Congested due to allergies? Go with an antihistamine.) Once you've given the medicine some time to work, close your mouth, pinch your nose shut and very gently push air into the back of your nose as if you were blowing it, which may help nudge the tubes open. These tactics, combined with a little patience, should do the trick, but if the issue persists or the pain gets worse, see your doc. A clog can turn into a bacterial ear infection, for which you'll need antibiotics.

Health's medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and co-founder of Tula Skincare.

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