Why your ears pop when you are riding on an airplane?

Asked by: Maria


Human Ear
Figure 1: Anatomy of the Human Ear

The outside of the eardrum is exposed to the pressure of the air where ever you may be located. That pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch at sea level on a standard day.

The space inside of the eardrum is usually at the same pressure as the outside. This is facilitated by a tube, one end of which opens into the space of the 'inner ear' and the other end opens into the rear part of your throat. But, that end of the tube is normally lightly squeezed closed. Each time you swallow or yawn it opens just enough to admit air to the inner ear, thereby equalizing the pressure with the outside. Your ear drum then feels comfortable.

When you climb higher as in an airplane or in a car in the mountains, you are going into an area of lesser air pressure. The air from the lower altitude is 'trapped' in the inner ear. If it can not escape you will soon have an ear ache caused by the ear drum being balooned outward (stressed) by the higher pressure inside. So, it pushes out through the 'eustachian tube' into your throat with bubble-popping sound.

If you have an infected throat, the tube opening may be swollen closed and the inner ear pressure cannot be equalized without resulting in eardrum pain. You have to swallow hard and yawn to assist in opening the tube to let the pressure escape. Likewise upon descent, if the higher pressure at lower altitudes can not pass into the inner ear, pain will result. NEVER, repeat: NEVER hold your nose and blow in order to clear your ears. If your throat is infected you will blow infecteous mucus into your inner ear, causing an infection there. Instead, swallow hard several times to 'wipe' clear the opening of the eustachian tube, then immediately yawn and stretch your jaw foreward in repeated efforts to open the tube enough to equalize the pressure.
Answered by: William Clarence Phelps, Sr., California Certified Teacher: Aeronautics