The pain you feel in your ears when you fly — especially during take-off and landing — is probably caused by the inch-and-a-half-long, pencil-point-thin Eustachian tube. It allows air deep into your ears, equalizing the pressure on both sides of your eardrums.

A change in air pressure disturbs this process, causing "ear squeeze." Besides on an airplane, it can happen when you scuba dive or are in a fast-rising elevator. And if you’re ill and one or both of your Eustachian tubes are swollen, inflamed or blocked with mucous, the pain can be unbearable.

Related: Swimmer's Ear Treatment and Prevention

Here are five approaches to opening blocked, plugged, stopped-up ears. 

l. Yawn. Opening wide moves the cheek and throat muscles in such a way that opens the Eustachian tube. "Place your index finger a half inch into your ear and press firmly towards the top and back of your head, yawning as deeply as possible," advises Christopher Chang, MD, of Fauquier ENT Consultants in Warranton, Virginia.

2. Swallow more. This action also moves the cheek and throat muscles. Chew gum or suck on hard candy so you can swallow often.

3. Stay awake. During sleep you swallow less. Unless you’re on a red-eye or just can’t keep from nodding off, try not to snooze the flight away.

4. Do the Valsalva maneuver. Take a deep breath, close your mouth and pinch your nostrils closed. Then force the air out through your nose as if you’re blowing your nose. Because the air won’t be able to escape, the pressure inside your ears will have to change. You should ear a pop. If it doesn't the first time, try again.

5. Pop a pill. If you have a cold, take a decongestant thirty minutes to an hour before your flight to reduce the swelling in your Eustachian tubes. Using a decongestant spray 30 minutes before take-off and landing also may help. "Aim the spray toward the back of your neck and sniff just hard enough for it to reach the back of your nose. As soon as you feel it there, try to pop your ears using the Valsalva maneuver," says Chang.

If you have allergies, some experts suggest taking an antihistamine or using a steroid nasal spray. If allergies make flying torture for you, an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) can create a hole in your eardrum or Eustachian tube to prevent pressure from building up in the ear. This procedure, called a myringotomy, sounds worse than it is. "For adults it's a five-minute office procedure," says Chang.

Related: Germ-Free Flying

Special help for tiny travelers

For babies and young children, ear pressure pain may be especially intense because their Eustachian tubes are shorter and straighter than adults'. (Something worth keeping in mind the next time you're on a plane with a wailing baby: It's likely she's hurting.) 

To help unstop a little ears: 

  • Breastfeed her or give her a bottle while holding her upright. 
  • If she uses a pacifier, encourage her to suck on it.  
  • Help young children swallow repeatedly as the plane changes elevation, says Chang. A child who's 4 or over can suck on a lollipop or piece of hard candy. (These are chocking hazards for younger kids.) 
  • If your child often has ear pain when flying, ask your pediatrician about giving her acetaminophen or ibuprofen a half-hour before the plane takes off or lands. 

Related: How to Clear an Earwax Blockage

Dianne Lange is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer specializing in health and travel. She is the author of four books on cancer and a former editor at SELF, Health, Natural Health and Prevention. Her work has appeared on websites such as,, WebMD and Everyday Health.