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Pop Goes the Eardrum

By Effin Older
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page E04

The Problem: Piercing pain, not unlike chopsticks being pushed through your eardrums, encountered during takeoffs and landings. (Note: This is not the more typical vague discomfort many travelers feel before their ears pop. If this common phenomenon is a headache, full-blown "eustachian tube dysfunction" [ETD], as doctors call the more acute pain, is a migraine.)

Background: ETD occurs when the air pressure on each side of your eardrum is not the same. This can occur if your eustachian tubes--which connect your inner ear to the back of your nose--are partially or completely blocked due to a sinus infection or cold. Some people's plumbing is just more susceptible than others' to the pressure imbalance, and thus the pain.

The Solution: EarPlanes, a product introduced in 1995 but still relatively unknown. They are a pair of inch-long soft, silicone plugs, about the size of a screw (but much more comfortable). You insert them into your ears before take-off and remove them once the plane has reached cruising altitude. Reinsert them before you begin your descent.

How it works: Tiny, porous ceramic filters are embedded in each plug. The filter slows the flow of air through the ear canal, which gives your ears time to adjust to the cabin's rapid change in air pressure.

My story: I've suffered from ETD for long enough to consider grounding myself, and I've tried most of the traditional "cures": yawning, chewing gum, inhaling nose drops, and the flight attendants' favorite, the Valsalva Maneuver, which requires you to pinch and breathe through your nose simultaneously. You can also put a hot, wet paper towel into a foam cup and place it over your ear. Nothing worked for me.

On a recent trip to Milan, I tried EarPlanes. On the runway, I twisted the plugs into my ears. Within minutes of leaving the ground, something that had never happened to me before occurred--my ears popped. A gentle, pain-free pop. Later, on the descent, I got the familiar heavy, sluggish feeling in my ears that signaled the build-up of pressure. But this time, for the first time, it didn't hurt. Once on the ground, instead of the dreaded sharp, breathtaking ear pops, my ears released with smooth, soft puffs.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery Inc. publishes a free pamphlet: "Ears, Altitude and Airplane Travel." Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the academy at 1 Prince St., Alexandria, Va. 22314. EarPlanes, sold in drugstores, airport shops and through the Magellan's travel catalogue (1-800-962-4943, www, are available in adult and child sizes and cost $4.75 per pair. One pair of EarPlanes is good for a round trip (two flight segments).

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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