Ask the expert


Blocked ear and flying

My left ear feels like it's blocked or has water in it as there is a pulsating sensation and it feels like my heart beat. It has been like this for a week or two and I've tried medicated ear drops but to no avail. I am going abroad to Egypt on Friday and I have concerns that the change in air pressure within the plane could affect my ear.

11 February 2019

From the symptoms you describe it sounds as though your inner ear and middle ear may well be blocked with a build-up of wax. It’s also possible that you have an ear infection.

You say you’ve been using medicated ear drops but that this has not eased the problem.

It would be advisable to see a GP at your local surgery or Walk-In clinic for review. Your ears need to be examined in order to determine the cause of your symptoms and the appropriate treatment. You may need antibiotic treatment if there is an infection, as well as medicated ear drops/oils to reduce wax build up. It would be advisable to get the blocked ear remedied before flying if possible

These days, we suggest that you don’t use earbuds or fingers to remove wax build up as this can push wax further down the canal. This is why medicated drops are often recommended.

As you know, with air travel there tends to be a build-up of pressure within the ear at the point of take-off and descent. This can be painful but there are things you can do to help ease the pressure and the discomfort:

  • Take decongestants to minimise the pain and build-up of fluid or wax in your ear.

  • Try sucking, chewing and swallowing as this helps open up the Eustachian tube, which connects your inner ear to the back of your throat and helps control the pressure inside the ear.

  • Try the Valsalva technique: pinch your nose and at the same time, with your mouth firmly closed, exhale so that your cheeks puff out.

  • Try using ear plugs which are specifically for use when flying as these will stabilise the ear during pressure changes with take-off and descent.

Once again, we would encourage you to see a GP as soon as possible to get you started on an effective treatment. If getting an appointment with your GP is difficult you may wish to seek an appointment with a private GP or visit an NHS Walk-In Centre.

Information on walk-in centres can be found on the NHS website.

Wishing you all the best and a good flight.

Answered by the Health at Hand team.

Sources and further reading

Very blocked ears - Ask the Expert

Earwax build up  - NHS factsheet

Glue ear (in children) - NHS factsheet

Ear infections - NHS factsheet

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