un-popping your ears

I was laid up with a pretty bad cold early on this week, but I had to fly out for a med school interview on Wednesday that I couldn’t reschedule. I’d recovered fairly well by the time of my flight, but I was still nominally sick on the way there and back.

The approach for landing was agonizing because I couldn’t equalize. Yawning, swallowing, holding my nose and forcefully exhaling, all those techniques did nothing. My right ear was much more cooperative, but my left ear stayed “clogged” for hours after the flight in, and it’s been clogged since I got back in the wee hours of thursday morning.

So now I understand why it sucks to fly with a cold. Hot damn. So my question here is, what do you guys do to deal with a stubborn popped ear? Is there anything you eat like spicy food? Anything like trying to swallow water while blowing out your nose, some crazy stuff like that?

Also, what’s going on in there anyway? A trapped air bubble? Did the change in pressure squeeze the walls of the canal shut so they could be effectively glued in place by mucus?

Go buy the spiciest beef jerky you can find. When I’m blocked up, I find that the chewing along with the spices help clear me right up.

That’s interesting: I got takeout ribs from fridays the night before my interview, and my ears cleared up while I was eating. That’s what got me to thinking that eating something spicy could help. I think I’ll give your method a try. Thanks.

I have to try that. I have a horrible problem with popping my ears. I have chronic fluid buildup in my middle ear and go about 50-75% of the time with impaired hearing because of it. And I can’t pop my ears. I try and nothing happens. Even that device ENT specialists use (that “swallow this glass of water while I blow a metric ton of air down your nose” makeshift hydraulic ram thing) didn’t do anything. It’ll sometimes happen unintentionally, like when I yawn a certain way (which I can never consciously re-enact), but very, very rarely on purpose.

Middle ear equalization is accomplished through the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the sinus cavities. When you have a cold, this passage can become blocked, due to a combination of inflammation and mucous buildup. As ambient pressure increases, the most common method of equalization is the “Valsalva Maneouver” , which is when you pinch your nose shut and exhale GENTLY against it, increasing pressure in the sinus cavity with the intent of opening the Eustachian tube with the increased pressure. One method of maintaining a clear Eustachian tube is through the use of decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), but this practice has long been discouraged in divers, since it introduces the possibility of a reverse block. A reverse block occurs when equalization is possible on descent, but the Eustachian tube becomes re-obstructed prior to or during ascent. The increased pressure in the middle ear trying to escape can be an extremely painful condition, and in some cases dangerous. Travel by air is the opposite of diving, since you first ascend to ambient pressure at altitude or a pressurized passenger cabin (at a pressure less than that at sea level), and then return to sea level pressure. Decongestants, if used carefully, are certainly one method of dealing with the problem. Another is by mechanically manipulating the Eustachian tube in an attempt to open the blockage. This can be accomplished by opening the jaw (as in yawning) or manipulating it around. Chewing gum is a good way of doing this. Often, pressure variations between sides of the tympanic membrane (eardrum) will correct themselves slowly over time. I have this problem frequently in one ear only, when after landing my hearing is adversely affected until that ear corrects itself. Provided the pressure differential is small enough to not be painful, this is not dangerous. The attenuated sound is a result of the eardrum being pushed in one direction by the pressure differential, and being under increased tension as a result. Once the middle ear is equalized, the pressure differential disappears and the eardrum relaxes, allowing you to hear sounds at a normal volume and frequency distribution. If you are still unable to equalize after an extended period of time, or if the pressure differential is causing you pain, your best bet is probably to consult a physician.


I can deliberately equalize pressure in my ears by moving some muscle in there. The movement makes a distinct clicking noise, that even other people can hear if they put their ear to mine. When I’m moderately congested, I can click them, but they won’t stay equalized, and when I’m super congested, I can’t click them at all. At that point, I use some Afrin (once a day for up to three days, or you get rebound swelling/congestion).

Chewing often does the trick, I think because of the way you’re moving your jawbones. I used to do this a lot when I was a kid - as a result, it happens just a little almost every time I swallow. I can do it at will and usually without holding my nose, so I guess that’s a benfeit…