Why Traveling by Plane Can Worsen Tinnitus

People on a plane. Traveling and Tinnitus.

Are you a frequent flyer who suffers from tinnitus? Here are a few tips to help you avoid “airplane ear” and help stop the ringing in your ears.

Since the dawn of civilization, we’ve lived in a mobile society. Cavemen used to follow the herds and would constantly travel looking for food sources until they finally settled down.

Today, our travel is usually limited to visiting family that lives halfway across the country or in another part of the world, going to a business conference in a different city, or maybe just getting away to somewhere exotic. The difference between now and then? Travel is so, so much easier now because we have several options for getting from one place to another, even if some of them aren’t ideal.

You could spend a day or more in a car or months on a boat on your way somewhere, but even that sounds pretty awful. No one wants their travel to take that long.

Often airplane travel is the only reasonable option for getting from here to there when your destination is farther than a few hours’ drive. But If you have tinnitus, a simple plane trip can be anywhere from simply uncomfortable to absolutely unbearable.

However, if you understand how planes can impact tinnitus, you can then find ways to ease your symptoms and get back to flying.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus, which affects between 15 and 37 percent of the population to varying degrees, is a symptom that can have many causes like:

  • Ear trauma
  • Infection
  • Certain medications

The persistent ringing, humming, static, or other sounds that people hear may be either subjective, meaning that only the person with the tinnitus can hear it, or objective. In the rare case of objective tinnitus, a doctor can insert an instrument that can actually “hear” the sound.

Either way, it’s difficult to relax when your ear is ringing. On a flight, it can also be difficult to hear the flight attendant or your travel companion and could even turn painful as you climb in altitude.

What is Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear happens when stress is put on your eardrum and middle ear due to changes in air pressure. The hallmarks of Airplane Ear are discomfort and a feeling of fullness in your ears, accompanied by muffling of sounds, all of which may present themselves in varying degrees.

Airplane Ear most often occurs when the plane is either ascending or descending – basically when the plane’s altitude is rapidly changing. It can also happen in either one or both ears. The condition typically only lasts for a short time, but if it continues for a few hours, you should contact a doctor or hearing specialist.

How flying worsens tinnitus

Planes produce what tinnitus sufferers would consider the perfect storm. They’re loud plus the ascension and landing pressure changes, as mentioned above, require your inner ears to adjust to a new altitude quickly. Depending on how severe the tinnitus is, these two conditions can make flying so bad that you’ll wish you had taken that 24-hour car ride all the way down to Disney World.

Sound-exacerbated symptoms

Whether or not the noise impacts your tinnitus will depend on the type of tinnitus you have. Most people have high-frequency tinnitus. Their symptoms get worse with high-frequency sounds. Jet engines function mostly at a mid-frequency range. Because of this, you may not experience any worsening symptoms at all from the jet noise and should be able to enjoy your flight with no issues (besides no leg room and sub-par in-flight meals).

If, however, you have tinnitus that is responsive to mid-frequency sounds or your tinnitus aggravates with any loud sound, then plane travel without planning may be uncomfortable (in addition to the bad food and cramped space).

Altitude-exacerbated symptoms

Most people are accustomed to their ears popping when they ascend and descend in an aircraft, but tinnitus sufferers find this much more of an ordeal.

Inside your middle ear, behind the eardrum, you have a eustachian tube. This tube is responsible for helping to keep the air behind the eardrum at the same pressure being experienced on the outside. The eustachian tube works by releasing a bubble of air into the middle ear to equalize pressure. If the eustachian tube is blocked or not functioning well, it can’t do this.

If the eustachian tube doesn’t do its job, then a vacuum is created that “sucks” the eardrum’s thin membrane into the inner ear. This action stretches the delicate layer unnaturally, causing sounds to become even more distorted and, at times, causing pain.

This impacts tinnitus sufferers even more acutely because the ringing in their ears is amplified when the membrane is stretched. Those who have a dull ringing will notice the noise much more, while sufferers who have debilitating tinnitus will find the noise to be so much worse.

How to prevent airplane tinnitus

To prevent tinnitus, you will need to consider whether you need protection against sound-related tinnitus, altitude-related tinnitus, or both. Then apply these strategies:

  • Bring and wear sound-canceling headphones or earmuffs. You don’t have to wear them the whole flight. Most people only experience discomfort when engines are at their loudest. That’s during take-off.
  • Do not wear earplugs. Earplugs can actually intensify your tinnitus.
  • Ask, in advance, to be seated away from the jets because of your health condition. This will be in the front of the plane. (Bonus: You’ll get to exit the plane a lot faster, too, when you sit up front!)
  • Yawn and swallow as you ascend. Any activity where you’re moving your jaw helps open up those eustachian tubes, which allows them to do their job better. Some find that chewing gum or sucking on hard candy helps as well.
  • Don’t fly congested. The eustachian tubes become clogged when you’re congested, and it can be painful in multiple ways. If you must fly, take a decongestant before flying to relieve these symptoms.
  • Stay awake during the plane’s ascent and descent, as the eustachian tubes have a much harder time adjusting while you’re asleep.
  • Keep yourself distracted with in-flight entertainment, music, or even reading a book. These distractions can help you take your mind off the noise in your ears, especially if the other remedies don’t work as well. You could always try having a conversation with your seatmate, but you might want to approach that one on a case-by-case basis (red-eye flights are not the time to make new friends).

Bonus travel tips

Relax before your flight. De-stressing can lower your blood pressure, which has been shown to lessen symptoms. Get a good night’s sleep. Do some yoga. Practice deep breathing. You’ll feel more relaxed and less prone to the effects of flying.

Wear your hearing aid during take-off and landing. It might sound counterintuitive because it can make the sound seem louder, but even without your hearing aid, the sound waves are still entering your ear. At least, with the hearing aid, you have a better sound range, which will typically reduce symptoms.


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