by Dr. Vikneswaran Tharumalingam
MBBS (MAHE), MS-ORL (UKM), FFOM (Ireland)
ENT, Head & Neck Surgeon Occupational Physician
These days “everyone can fly” and everyone does. We are bound to face a distraught baby continuously crying her/ his lungs out just as the plane is about to take off or land. Somehow it always happens right next to you. And that is when you think why me? So what is the science behind this?
Babies have an immature Eustachian tube, which collapses in the pressurised cabin of an aeroplane. This results in a build up of pressure within the middle ear and the resultant failure to equilibrate pressure causes stretching of the eardrum, which is very pain sensitive. This effect is amplified when pressure changes are drastic as when the plane ascends or descents rapidly.
Does this only happen to babies?
No. Even adults can experience this when they fly while suffering flu. Because any nasal blockage (as in a flu) can result in the Eustachian tube valve failure, which results in the Eustachian tube blockage.
Is there anything I can do to prevent this painful ear?
Yes. Please don’t fly during a severe cold or flu. See a doctor for some decongestant a few days before flying. Do the Valsalva Maneuver during landing and take off.
So this only happens when flying?
Not quite. Eustachian tube blockage can happen anywhere but it is more pronounced in conditions of rapid changes of pressure as in Scuba Diving and Flying.
What do I do when this happens?
Do the Valsalva Maneuver, Continuously swallow as when you are eating, Chew gum, Suck on a sweet and for babies breast / bottle feeding during landing an take off.
What is the Valsalva Maneuver?
If everything fails, what is the worst-case scenario?
Excruciating ear pain followed by a burst eardrum, which results in a persistent ear discharge.
Does this mean no travelling during flu?
No. ENT Surgeons can perform a procedure in the clinic where a small ventilation tube is placed in the eardrum to prevent pressure pain and rupture in selected persons.
KPJ Sibu Specialist Medical Centre
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96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.
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