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What is Ear Popping?

By K. Testa
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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Ear popping, also known as ear barotrauma, can be an uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, sensation in the middle ear. It has several potential causes, but one of the most common is a rapid change in altitude. There are several methods a person can try in order to relieve this pressure. While usually not serious, ear popping can sometimes be a symptom of a more urgent medical issue. If the problem is not treated properly, this can result in severe eardrum damage and even hearing loss.

The Eustachian tube connects a person’s middle ear to the pharynx, which is an area in the rear of the nasal cavity and throat. The tube regulates the pressure between the middle ear and the outer environment. A change in altitude, such as a rapid descent while flying in an airplane, can disrupt this pressure, and ear barotrauma may result. Other examples of altitude changes that can cause this condition are scuba diving and driving up a mountain.

Someone experiencing ear popping may feel a sense of fullness at first, like a blockage in the ear. This pressure might be accompanied by pain or ringing. Muffled hearing or temporary hearing loss also may occur. A person’s discomfort may be worse if he or she has a cold, an ear infection, sinus problems, or other respiratory problems.

Commonly suggested remedies include yawning, swallowing, and chewing gum. Another technique, called the Valsalva maneuver, involves gentle exhalation while holding the mouth and nostrils closed. If these remedies do not work, there are prescription and over-the-counter medications available. These can include oral antihistamines, oral decongestants or sprays, and steroids.

Medical professionals recommend different methods for ear popping in young children. They typically caution against giving decongestants to children under age two. Instead, very young children may experience relief if offered a pacifier, a bottle, or a beverage in a cup. Each method is intended to encourage swallowing in order to help equalize ear air pressure.

Anyone who experiences ear popping that lasts longer than a few hours is usually advised to seek medical attention. Severe pain, total hearing loss, and nosebleeds are some indicators of potentially serious ear damage. One should also contact a physician if he or she experiences additional symptoms, such as a fever or drainage from the ear. In rare but serious cases, surgery to open the Eustachian tube may be required.

While ear popping may not be entirely preventable, there are some steps that medical professionals suggest in order to decrease its likelihood. For instance, they usually recommend that people with colds or allergies avoid flying and other altitude changes. If such plans cannot be changed, they advise sufferers take antihistamines or decongestants as a preventive measure prior to the activity.

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Discussion Comments
By Scrbblchick — On Feb 26, 2014

Oh, flying with a head cold is more fun than I can describe! Your head feels like it weighs 100 pounds and is stuffed with modeling clay. If you can get your ears to pop at altitude, it's sweet relief, but usually *hurts* when it happens.

I had a terrible cold one winter and my left ear had been stopped up for days. It was awful. I was on my second round of antibiotics. I was sitting in class (in college) and yawned. Suddenly, my ear popped! Again, it hurt -- felt like someone stabbed me with an ice pick, but oh, did it ever feel better to have that pressure relieved! I yelled because it hurt. The professor asked me what was wrong, and then chuckled when I told her the reason. I was mildly surprised not everyone in class could hear it, the "pop" sound in my ear was so intense!

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