Many who fly have experienced a feeling of something obstructing their ears, especially during the moments when the aircraft is ascending or descending. While this feeling is often temporary, it can sometimes cause moderate pain and continue throughout the flight.

Even though many pilots get used to the air pressure changes while in the air, pilots have developed techniques that help them to deal with ear popping when it occurs. So, let’s explore what those techniques are.

What’s the cause of ear popping during the flight?

The discomfort in the ear during the flight is often called an ‘airplane ear’ (ear barotrauma). It occurs after the aircraft takes off and when it descends for landing. Common signs and symptoms of an airplane ear include feeling fullness or stuffiness in the ear, muffled hearing, moderate discomfort, or even pain.

The airplane ear is the pressure imbalance between the air pressure in the middle ear and the air pressure in the environment caused by rapid air pressure changes. The airplane ear usually happens because our ears cannot act fast enough due to rapid air pressure changes.

For example, when an aircraft climbs, the air pressure decreases and causes stress on one side of the eardrum. The pressure on one side of the eardrum can be painful. It is noteworthy that this condition can affect one or both ears.

Therefore, to improve airplane ear symptoms, it is important to know how to equalize the pressure inside and outside the ear.

The most common ways to ease ear popping

Imagine having to pilot an airplane while experiencing a blockage of ears. That wouldn’t be an ideal situation. So, here are the most common ways pilots ease it:


One of the most common techniques for coping with ear popping is yawning. Yawning opens the eustachian tube and lets the air flow into or out of the middle ear. This way yawning equalizes the pressure inside and outside the ear.

A pilot yawning in the cockpit

Minimizing the effect. Photo: christinarosepix | Shutterstock


Chewing is another practice that helps pilots to relieve ear popping. Just like yawning or swallowing liquids, chewing also stretches areas around the ears, equalizing the pressure inside the ear. Chewing gum, gummy bears, and other chewy candies can help alleviate tension in the ears caused by altitude changes.

Flexing your jaw

This is a common technique used not only by pilots. In some cases, flexing the muscles behind the jaw will help the ear pop.

Toynbee Technique

The Toynbee technique is one of several that helps pilots in cases of obstructed ears. To do the Toynbee maneuver, pinch the nose closed and close the mouth, then try swallowing.


By opening your mouth to drink liquids, a person is also swallowing air. The swallowing and movement of the mouth can help pop the ears. In addition, drinking liquids can not only clear the eustachian tube but also avoid dehydration during a flight.

A pilot drinking water

Minimizing the effect. Photo: christinarosepix | Shutterstock

Valsalva Technique

While this technique is often used, it must be done carefully because, on rare occasions, the Valsalva technique can cause a rise of pressure behind the eyes. To do the Valsalva technique, a person needs to exhale as if blowing up a balloon with a closed mouth and pinched nose.

It is worth noting that pilots cannot fly in case of a cold, clogged sinuses, ear infection, or any other symptoms that affect the ears or nose.

Sources: Mayo Clinic, Pilot Teacher


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