by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady explained,
I suffer from hearing loss and a feeling of blocked ears. When going on a plane last week, when the plane took off I went completely deaf and my hearing stayed that way the whole journey. After landing, it has taken over a day to get my hearing back. Why has this happened?
Before I explain what happened and why, let me give a short explanation of how your middle ears work. Each of your middle ears are connected to the back of your throat by an Eustachian tube. Normally, a small muscle keeps your Eustachian tubes closed. (If they remained open you’d hear loud breathy sounds each time you breathe, and your voice would sound much too loud.)
When your Eustachian tubes are working properly, each time you swallow or yawn, they open momentarily. This allows any difference in air pressure between your middle ears and the air around you to equalize. This is important because if the air pressure is greater in your middle ear than in the air around you, it creates a balloon effect in your middle ears. This pushes your eardrums away from the first of the tiny bones—the malleus (hammer). When this happens your eardrum has to move further before it can push on the malleus—thus you don’t hear as well. (For example, soft sounds don’t move your eardrum enough for it to move the malleus so you don’t hear them.)
Fortunately for us, whenever we yawn or swallow, the muscle closing each Eustachian tube relaxes and the Eustachian tube opens momentarily. This either allows air to rush in (if the middle ear pressure was too low) or rush out (if the middle ear pressure was too high). You only notice this when your ears “pop” when the pressure change is significant. The rest of the time you are totally unaware this is happening.
However, if anything blocks your Eustachian tubes, then this air exchange can’t take place and your eardrum may be left sucked in or bulged out. Either way, it affects your hearing. Typically this occurs when you have a cold or are congested, perhaps from allergies. Mucous in your throat gets sucked up and stuck in your Eustachian tubes and blocks them so no air exchange takes place. If there are no pressure changes taking place, you don’t notice this much.
However, when you are taking off or landing in a plane, air pressure changes are occurring rapidly as you ascend and descend.
When your Eustachian tubes can’t open so no air gets exchanged, the pressure differential bulges your ear drum out so it is pushed away from the tiny hammer bone and you notice you can’t hear well anymore.
Unless you have a severe hearing loss to begin with, you don’t actually go completely deaf—it just may seem like it.
I know that if I don’t swallow or yawn I can let my ear drums bulge out so that I can’t even hear the roar of the jets. It’s very peaceful flying that way if you don’t mind the feeling of pressure in your ears. But as soon as I swallow, things return to normal and I hear the jets again.
If your ears are still blocked when you land, you’ll still have problems hearing as you have found out. Fortunately, over time, the “gunk” blocking your Eustachian tubes drains out and air exchange begins again. When this happens, your hearing
returns to normal.
If your ears are blocked, you may choose not to fly. If you do have to fly, some people find that using decongestants just before and during flights helps them avoid this problem.