If you've ever had ear pain when flying, you've experienced the effects of barotrauma. A result of the pressure changes that occur when moving to higher or lower altitudes, barotrauma often goes after a few hours but can cause serious hearing damage in some cases. So, what is it and how can we avoid it?
What is barotrauma?
The pressure on the outside of your eardrum needs to be the same as the pressure on the inside, which is why your ears have something called eustachian tubes. These adjust the pressure inside your ear to equal the pressure outside of it. If you ascend too quickly, such as during flying or diving, your eustachian tubes can't work fast enough. This means that, as you ascend, your eardrum swells outwards due to the pressure increase inside it. Likewise the opposite happens when you descend, sucking your eardrum inward and causing a vacuum effect. This is known as barotrauma.
What are the symptoms of barotrauma?
Symptoms include a stuffy feeling in your ears, temporary hearing loss and sometimes pain. More extreme cases can lead to your eardrum bursting, causing permanent hearing damage and ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus. Other symptoms are leaking ear fluid, fever and vertigo.
Who does barotrauma affect?
It's not the high altitude itself that causes barotrauma. It's the pressure changes associated with it. When you're hiking up a mountain, you're normally going slowly enough that your eustachian tubes can adjust accordingly. It's quicker ascents and descents that can cause problems, especially during flying, scuba diving and skydiving.
What can you do to avoid barotrauma?
When flying, try chewing gum, sucking on boiled sweets, swallowing or yawning. This opens the eustachian tubes, allowing air to flow in and out. As none of these things are easy to do when diving, try pinching the end of your nose and gently blowing instead. Barotrauma is much more likely to occur when you are suffering from a congested nose, so if you have allergies that are flaring up, or a cold or other respiratory infection, avoid rapid altitude changes.
If you think barotrauma has affected your ears permanently, take advantage of AudioClinic's no cost* hearing tests. For more information, please call us on 1800 317 914.