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What Happens If Your Ears Won’t Pop After Flying?

We asked the experts, and here’s what they advised.


n March, I flew from Chicago to Kenya with a tiny cold. I felt great on the plane, but thanks to my stuffy nose, my ears just wouldn’t pop when I landed for both my layovers or for the final flight to Kenya. When I got off the flight, I couldn’t hear out of my right ear at all—it was completely closed off. I had to turn my head every time I talked to someone, so I could hear them. And the pressure. It was wild.

Being an anxiety-prone traveler, I panicked on day three. My thoughts turned to the truly ridiculous: What if my hearing never came back? Did I damage my ear canal by traveling with a cold? But overall, I wanted to know what I could do to relieve the pressure and get my hearing back.

If you have ever experienced this same issue, I’m here to help. Adrian Lister, a clinically trained audiologist and co-founder of AlliedVirtualCare, an organization that works with seniors with hearing loss, talked me through all my concerns to help you out.

Is it dangerous if your ears don’t pop?

It’s generally not dangerous if your ears won’t pop, Lister says. So, you don’t need to panic like I did.

Another piece of standard advice—plugging your nose and trying to force air out—is something you definitely shouldn’t do.

“Your middle ear is an enclosed space that has a tube leading to your throat called a eustachian tube,” he explained. “If that tube functions properly, then the pressure in your middle ear matches the air pressure around you. Sometimes that tube can get congested or gently compressed by usual movement, and when you move your jaw or swallow, it reopens the tube, and the air moving gives you that popping feeling.”

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But if it doesn’t pop, it hasn’t for a reason—to protect your hearing. That’s why it’s important not to force your ears to pop. The pressure and feeling of it is uncomfortable and annoying, but rapidly changing the pressure on your eardrum can cause worse issues than just not being able to hear for a few days.

Can it cause hearing damage if your ears don’t pop?

That’s a big nope, thankfully. If your ears don’t pop, your eustachian tube is actually doing the job it’s meant to do, especially if your ear is clogged from a cold or allergies. When you’re sick in that way, fluid can enter your middle ear.

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“The fluid absorbs a lot of the sound traveling through the auditory system and can make sounds seem quieter or can feel uncomfortable,” Lister says, noting it can also be pretty painful if the fluid gets infected—something that’s common with young children. “It is rare for this issue to cause a permanent hearing difference.”

Your eustachian tube is basically keeping the pressure in your inner ear stable, protecting it from any damage.

What can I do to pop my ears?

Here’s where all the traditional advice comes in. While you’re on the plane, try chewing some gum to get your ear to pop. You can also try yawning, opening and closing your mouth exaggeratedly, and trying a hot or cold drink. Another piece of standard advice—plugging your nose and trying to force air out—is something you definitely shouldn’t do. As Lister explains, that can make the problem worse or quickly lead to a ruptured eardrum. You should also steer clear of “cotton swabs, ear candles, and essential oils,” Lister adds, because they “can cause serious damage to the outer and middle ear.”

Help! What if the traditional methods aren’t working?!

So, you’ve yawned and chewed and opened your mouth so much that your jaw hurts, and your ear still hasn’t popped. What do you do now? There’s a secret weapon: decongestants. You can get some over the counter, or your audiologist can prescribe some. It will help clear up any congestion in your sinuses, which will change the pressure in your ear and help the ears to pop so they can normalize the pressure with the outside air, explains Lister.

As for me, I didn’t have access to my doctor or decongestants in the Kenyan bush. So, I took it upon myself to fix the problem. On day three, I finally got my ear to pop. The night before, I slept with a pillow pushed against my ear. And in the morning, I went on a game drive in the Maasai Mara and turned my ear into the wind blowing heavily onto my face, hoping it would kind of manually force open my eustachian tube, and finally: pop! A very painful pop, I might add, with some painful crackling noises lasting for the next full day. So maybe don’t use my method.

dennismills9460 August 17, 2022

I purchased this one year when i had ear issues

SteelyDeb July 27, 2022

1) Flonase nasal spray into each nostril
2) Decongestant (Sudafed)
For chronic sufferers like myself who can never get their ears to pop, the ENT instructed me to do this regimen 2 hours pre-flight.  It works like a charm. It will also help after a flight for occasional fluid in the inner ears.