Traveler’s Ear Discussion

The condition of fluid in the ear after someone has been flying or scuba diving is termed Barotitis (Traveler’s Ear). People develop this problem because of their inability to equalize air pressure between the middle ear and the surrounding atmosphere. The usual story is that a person flies with a head cold or sleeps through an airplane landing. The person didn’t equalize the pressure in the ear by “popping” the ear on decent of the plane. (See appendix A on popping the ears).

Negative pressure develops in the middle ear and fluid is drawn into the ear from surrounding tissue. The person can experience severe pain, hearing loss, pressure in the ears, ringing and possibly dizziness.

On examination the ear drum will have fluid behind it. The drum may look pink to dark in color. There may also be an air fluid level or air bubbles present.

Barotitis will usually slowly clear over a period of a few days. Most people will take some kind of over the counter decongestant which will help. Occasionally the fluid will become infected and the person may experience pain, fever, and chills. The infection will usually require antibiotics and pain medications. (See chapter 8.1 Ear infection)

Prevention of this problem is to never fly or scuba dive when one has nasal congestion. If one has to fly with a head cold then a few precautions will be helpful. Two to three days before the flight the person can start taking a decongestant/ antihistamine  and/or use a nasal spray to help dry up the nose. Once in the air the person only has to worry about popping their ears when the plane descends to land. Actively popping the ears will prevent the ears from blocking off and accumulating fluid with the accompanying pressure and pain.  Children should be awake during landing and given something to drink.  Infants should have something to nurse on or be crying. One should NEVER sleep through a landing if one wants to avoid “Barotitis”.