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 the ear to your throat and nose and helps to regulate ear pressure. This is called a “Eustachian tube,” named after the 16th century anatomist who discovered it. When the tube is blocked for some reason, you may experience barotrauma.
Occasional ear barotrauma is common, especially in environments where the altitude changes. While the condition is not harmful in some people, frequent cases can cause further complications. It is 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. This tube may have a fancy name, but it actually 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 now different than the pressure just outside of your eardrum.
Altitude changes are the most common cause of this condition. In fact, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, ear barotrauma is the most common medical issue on airplanes.(AAO, 2010).
Other causes 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. The AAO reports that ear barotrauma is most common in people with allergies, as well as those who suffer from colds or active infections.
Infants and young children are also particularly vulnerable to the condition. A child’s Eustachian tube is smaller than an adult’s, and it can be blocked more easily. When babies and toddlers cry on an airplane during the moment of take-off, it is often because they are feeling the effects of ear barotrauma.
While ear barotrauma may go away on its own, you should contact a doctor if it lasts more than two to three hours. A medical exam is 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. It may be pushed outward or slightly in from where it should sit due to pressure changes. Your doctor may also squeeze air 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. You can help relieve air pressure by:
- chewing gum
- using breathing exercises
- taking antihistamines or decongestants
In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or a steroid to help clear the problem.
Chronic cases of ear barotrauma may be aided with the help of ear tubes. These small cylinders are positioned right through the eardrum to stimulate airflow into the middle of the ear. Ear tubes can help prevent infections from barotrauma, and they are most commonly used in children.
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 can arise in some patients, especially in chronic cases. When left untreated, this condition can cause:
- ear infections
- ruptured eardrum
- hearing loss
- recurring pain
- chronic dizziness and feelings of unbalance (vertigo)
- bleeding from ears and nose
You can decrease your risk of experiencing chronic barotrauma by taking antihistamines or decongestants before scuba diving or flying on a plane. Always check with your doctor before taking new medications.