Sometimes when you are driving a car in the mountains, or flying in a plane, your ears 'pop'.
The changing altitude affects the pressure of the air in your ears.
Your middle ear is connected to the back of your nose by a narrow tube called the Eustachian Tube.
This tube acts like a pressure valve and opens to make sure the ait pressure is the same on both sides of your eardrum.
When it opens you feel a pop.
Normally, each time (or each second or third time) you swallow, your ears make a little click or popping sound.
This occurs because a small bubble of air has entered your middle ear, up from the back of your nose.
It passes through the Eustachian tube, a membrane-lined tube about the size of a pencil lead that connects the back of the nose to the middle ear.
The air in the middle ear is constantly being absorbed by its membranous lining and resupplied through the Eustachian tube.
In this manner, air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. If and when the air pressure is not equal, the ear feels blocked.
The Eustachian tube can be blocked, or obstructed, for a variety of reasons. When that occurs, the middle ear pressure cannot be equalized. The air already there is absorbed and a vacuum occurs, sucking the eardrum inward and stretching it. Such an eardrum cannot vibrate naturally, so sounds are muffled or blocked, and the stretching can be painful. If the tube remains blocked, fluid (like blood serum) will seep into the area from the membranes in an attempt to overcome the vacuum. This is called "fluid in the ear," serous otitis, or aero-otitis.
The most common cause for a blocked Eustachian tube is the common cold. Sinus infections and nasal allergies (hay fever, etc.) are also causes. A stuffy nose leads to stuffy ears because the swollen membranes block the opening of the Eustachian tube.
Children are especially vulnerable to blockages because their Eustachian tubes are narrower than adults.
How To Unblock Your Ears
Swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube.
You swallow more often when you chew gum or let mints melt in your mouth.
These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent.
Yawning is even better.
Avoid sleeping during descent, because you may not be swallowing often enough to keep up with the pressure changes.
The flight attendant will be happy to awaken you just before descent.
If yawning and swallowing are not effective, unblock your ears as follows:
- Step 1: Pinch your nostrils shut.
- Step 2: Take a mouthful of air.
- Step 3: Using your cheek and throat muscles, force the air into the back of your nose as if you were trying to blow your thumb and fingers off your nostrils.
When you hear a loud pop in your ears, you have succeeded. You may have to repeat this several times during descent.