Ear barotrauma is a condition that causes ear discomfort due to pressure changes.
In each ear there is a tube that connects the middle of your ear to your throat and nose. It also helps regulate ear pressure. This tube is called the eustachian tube and is named after the 16th century anatomist who discovered it. When the tube is blocked for some reason, you may experience ear barotrauma.
Occasional ear barotrauma is common, especially in environments where the altitude changes. While the condition isn’t harmful in some people, frequent cases may cause further complications. It’s important to understand the differences between acute (occasional) and chronic (recurring) cases so you know when to seek medical treatment.
Ear barotrauma is marked by an uncomfortable pressure inside the ear. Symptoms may include:
- ear pain
- general ear discomfort
- stuffiness of ears
- decreased hearing
Eustachian tube blockage is the direct cause of ear barotrauma. The eustachian tube helps to restore equilibrium during changes in pressure. For example, yawning is controlled in the ears through the eustachian tube. When the tube is blocked, symptoms persist because the pressure in the ear is different than the pressure outside of your eardrum.
Altitude changes are the most common cause of this condition. One of the places many people experience ear barotrauma is during an airplane’s ascent or descent. The condition is sometimes referred to as airplane ear.
Other situations that might cause ear barotrauma include:
- scuba diving
- driving through mountains
- ear infections
- eardrum ruptures
Any issue that may block the eustachian tube puts you at risk for experiencing barotrauma. People who have allergies, colds, or active infections may be more likely to experience ear barotrauma.
Infants and young children are also particularly vulnerable to this condition. A child’s eustachian tube is smaller than an adult’s and it may get blocked more easily. When babies and toddlers cry on an airplane during takeoff or landing, it’s often because they’re feeling the effects of ear barotrauma.
While ear barotrauma may go away on its own, you should contact a doctor if the condition lasts more than two to three hours. A medical exam may be required to rule out an ear infection.
Ear barotrauma is detected through a physical exam. A close look inside the ear with an otoscope will likely reveal changes in the eardrum. Due to pressure change, the eardrum may be pushed slightly outward or inward from where it should sit. Your doctor may also squeeze air (insufflation) into the ear to see if there is fluid or blood buildup behind the eardrum.
Most cases of ear barotrauma generally heal without medical intervention. There are some self-care steps you can take for immediate relief. You may help relieve the effects of air pressure on your ears by:
- chewing gum
- practicing breathing exercises
- taking antihistamines or decongestants
In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or a steroid to help clear up the problem.
Chronic cases of ear barotrauma may be aided with the help of ear tubes. These small cylinders are placed through the eardrum to stimulate airflow into the middle of the ear. Ear tubes, also known as tympanostomy tubes or grommets, are most commonly used in children and they can help prevent infections from ear barotrauma.
In some cases, ear barotrauma is a sign of a ruptured eardrum. A ruptured eardrum can take up to two months to heal. Symptoms that don’t respond to self-care may require surgery to prevent permanent damage to the eardrum.
Ear barotrauma is usually temporary. However, complications may arise in some people, especially in chronic cases. If left untreated, this condition may cause:
- ear infections
- ruptured eardrum
- hearing loss
- recurring pain
- chronic dizziness and feelings of unbalance (vertigo)
- bleeding from the ears and nose
You should contact your doctor if you have ear pain or decreased hearing for more than a few hours. Persistent and recurring symptoms could be a sign of severe or chronic ear barotrauma. You doctor will treat you and give you tips to help prevent any complications.
You can decrease your risk of experiencing chronic barotrauma by taking antihistamines (take the night before) or decongestants (nasal spray is the best choice) before scuba diving or flying on a plane. You should always check with your doctor and be aware of possible side effects before taking new medications.