Taking flights for business trips or vacations is a delight for most people. However, a lot of air travelers dread flying due to airplane pressure and how it affects their ear. Over the years, there has been continual debate on whether headphones can eliminate the effect of airplane pressure or not.
Don’t think about it for too long; the answer is No!
Ordinary headphones won’t stop your ears from popping because the popping effect is caused by changes in air pressure and air density in the airplane.
There is a lot to be understood as to why our ears pop during flights and normalize after landing. Airplane pressure can make air travels very unpleasant, especially when you have an ear infection or any other ear complication. Special headphones can help to maintain the pressure in our ears, which otherwise would have caused pains.
Also, listening to pop music with noise-canceling headphones can suppress cabin noise enough so you can still hear announcements.
What Happens in Your Ears during Takeoff?
The popping effect you feel during take-off is a resultant effect of pressure imbalance between the middle ear and the environment.
This imbalance exerts pressure on the eardrum and makes it bulge outward.
In simple words, when airplanes take off, the pressure in the cabin decreases steadily until the plane attains its cruising altitude. The decrease in pressure makes the air pressure in the cabin become lower than the air pressure inside the ear.
In an attempt to balance the pressure, the ear tries to push out air bubbles trapped in the ear through the Eustachian tube.
The pressure being pushed out exerts pressure/stress on the eardrum, which causes discomfort and could aggravate ear infections or allergies.
Travelers with ciliary dysfunction, sinonasal disease, and immunodeficiency are at higher risk of experiencing more discomfort.
As such, it’s best to stay awake during flight take-off to protect your ears using some of the proven methods I’ll share later on.
What Happens in Your Ears during Landing?
While the pressure inside the airplane decreases during ascension, it increases as the aircraft is descending.
This increase tends to exert pressure (in the opposite direction) on the eardrum, thereby sucking it in.
Depending on how much pressure is available inside the airplane and how much stress it exerts on the eardrum, travelers often feel varying levels of pain and discomfort in their ears.
However, you must have it in mind that the effects of airplane pressure on the ears vary from one person to another, and children are more at the risk of sustaining permanent injury or damage to their eardrums.
So, when next you are on a trip, try as much as possible to stay awake to know when the pilot announces the descent of the aircraft so you can try to equalize the pressure – simple techniques like chewing and swallowing have been shown to work quite effectively.
How Noise-Canceling Headphones Can Help during Flights
Considering the high number of noise-induced hearing loss cases reported in the United States, headphones have become very popular as a means of preventing ear injury or damage.
The use of Noise-canceling headphones is more pronounced among air travelers. It helps in blocking and filtering cabin noise and reducing pressure on the eardrum.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of using noise-canceling headphones during flights.
■ Noise-Canceling Headphones Can Help You Sleep Better during Flights
Sleeping through your trip may be an opportunity to catch some rest and save enough energy for when you arrive at your destination – but you’ve got to stay awake during take-off and landing to protect your ears.
Some travelers tag along with their neck pillow and eye masks to help them relax and enjoy their sleep. But how much sleep can you get when the passenger next to you is restless and chatty, or the baby just behind your seat won’t stop crying?
It’s even worse when you are seated at the tail end of the plane where the engine and propellers send in their noises.
Even though earplugs and some headphones can help reduce the loudness of the noise, it is best to use a special set of headphones called Noise-canceling headphones.
Unlike regular headphones, noise-canceling headphones are specially designed to filter all the noise from the environment – thereby saving your ears from all the baby cries, chattering, engine sound, and even the person snoring next to you.
There are quite a few quality noise-canceling headphones I can recommend. For instance, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (Amazon link) really takes the cake! They offer extra comfort for your ears, while canceling unwanted sounds.
- Active Noise Cancellation
- IPX4 Water Resistance
- Multi-Function Buttons
- Dual-Microphone System
- Alexa and Google Assistant-Enabled
- Bluetooth an ANC
- Up to 20 Hours on a Single Charge
- Bose App
Their cushiony design allows them to rest comfortably on my head without crushing my ears, making them perfect for naps during long flights, I once used them for 8 hours straight on a transatlantic flight, of course setting the volume on my smartphone at about 30 – 40%.
The Bose app is another fancy companion I really like. It even allows me to stream my favorite music over the in-flight Wi-Fi, but I mostly listen to Audiobooks.
■ Reduce Flight Anxiety
While some people are excited and can’t take their eyes off the clock so they can hit the road and get on the plane, others get very anxious and cringe at the thought of getting on an airplane.
According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, this set of people constitutes 20% of the population who would pass on any job opportunity or vacation that will likely get them on a plane for travel.
If you fall under this category of travelers who are gripped by anxiety on the thought of getting on an aircraft, here is how you can manage it.
It’s proven that listening to classical music and nature sounds like chirping birds, streams, and psithurism can help calm anxiety and reduce stress.
Interestingly, listening to music was found to significantly reduce anxiety by 68%. So, how do headphones fit in?
Noise-canceling headphones will help drown the noise and other sounds from the environment when you wear them.
They offer some of the best audio quality and equalizer effect. Also, if you are not comfortable having cables running down the sides of your face; you can ditch the cord and go the Bluetooth route.
It’s worth mentioning that there are playlists of stress-relieving songs you can listen to – you can find them on Spotify and use the Bose QuietComfort 35 II I’ve mentioned earlier to get some of the best sound quality.
■ Drown Loud Airplane Engine Noise
As soon as you step into the cabin, you will be greeted by passengers chattering, stuffing their luggage into the overhead bin and making all sorts of sounds.
Even though aircrafts design and choice of cabin materials are designed to absorb such noises, not all of it eventually dies out.
You still get to hear some ambient sound, especially if your seat is at the tail end of the plane where the engine and propellers are located.
Exposure to whirring engines and sound from air conditioning systems can lead to hearing loss, which could be temporary or permanent, depending on the exposure duration in that environment.
Whether you are going on a long or short distance trip, you should always protect your ears from noise pollution.
- True Wireless Bluetooth ANC Headphones
- 11 Levels of Active Noise Cancelling
- IPX4 Water Resistant
- 20 Hours of Non-Stop Music
- Excellent Call Audio Quality
- No Pressure on Your Temples
- Alexa Voice Control, Google Assistant
- Bose Music App
At the risk of sounding like a Bose fanboy, I can’t omit the new Bose 700 noise-canceling headphones (Amazon link) with their sleek and beautiful design, superb audio quality, and last but not least, their long battery life, which can last you up to 20 hours – making them ideal for long-distance flights.
■ Need Some Help with That Chatty Airplane Seat Neighbor?
You will never know who is going to be sitting next to you until everyone is on board. If, by chance you get paired with a reserved and calm person, then it’s your lucky day.
But what happens if your seatmate is the “chattering” type or a “Nattering Nate” like most people would say?
You can simply summon your noise-canceling headphone! Once you have your headphones on, you are subtly sending a message that you are not up for conversations and wouldn’t want to be disturbed.
Even when such chatty seatmates turn to the other neighbor, it won’t bother you because you can “fade-out” their conversation at the tap of a button whenever you want.
This way, you can drown noise to any level you want and still hear important announcements and communicate with the hosts/hostesses.
They also come with ingenious designs and enhancements like the conversation mode and Aware mode. Both allow you to suspend noise-cancelation in order to hear what’s happening around you at any time.
Why Protecting Your Ears on Flights Matters?
Our sense of hearing is one of the priceless abilities no one would like to lose. The need to protect your ears from any form of injury or damage cannot be overemphasized.
You can save yourself from ear pain by not exposing yourself to noise-polluted environments. If you must be in such an environment for one reason or the other, ensure that you have adequate ear protection like earplugs, faders, or noise-canceling headphones.
The consequences of not being cautious in a noisy environment, particularly for extended periods can be enormous and costly to treat – in severe cases, one may permanently lose hearing.
One often neglected noise-polluted environment is aircrafts’ cabins. Stepping into an airplane exposes you to crying babies, stomping feet, forceful shutting of the overhead bin, snoring, loud conversations, and sounds from both the airplane engine and the propellers.
Here is how the noise in airplane cabins can affect your hearing and probably lead to loss of hearing.
At cruising altitude, noise levels in the airplane cabin can get up to 85 decibels (dB) and much higher if the airplane is older – This is because the engines are aged and give out loud unpleasant sounds.
I still remember my uncle’s old Audi 80, and how the engine used to make the entire car vibrate.
I never drank a milkshake after, because I literally felt I was becoming one after each trip, and don’t get me started on the weird sensation in my eardrums.
Imagine sitting there for hours on end, yep! That’s what an old airplane will do for you, so, thanks but no thanks!
Beyond 85dB, it’s advised that one shouldn’t remain in such space for more than 8 hours without ear protection.
At 100dB and above, exposure duration shouldn’t exceed 15 minutes – have it in mind that according to the CDC, normal conversations are found to be around 60dB.
Extended exposure to such pollution can cause discomfort and pain in your ears.
To protect your ears from cabin air pressure and all the noise, use appropriate earplugs or get an efficient pair of noise-canceling headphones.
How to Protect Your Ears from Airplane Pressure?
It’s not unusual to feel your ear pop or experience pressure on your eardrum while airplanes are ascending or descending.
At both times, the cabin experience changes in air pressure, which exert stress on your eardrum and causes it to pop outwards during take-off and get sucked in while landing.
The stress impacted on the ear diaphragm can cause mild to excruciating pain and discomfort.
However, passengers with preexisting ear pain, infection, or allergies usually feel more severe pain compared to people without these conditions.
So, make sure that you plan your trips and get proper ear protection for yourself and the kids or family (if you are on a family trip).
One quick trick to help manage or prevent such pain is to balance the change in pressure in your ears and the environment – recall that the cabin air pressure increases during take-off (which pushes the eardrum out) and decreases in descent (thereby sucking the eardrum in).
Here are proven tricks and methods you can use to protect your ears – they always come in handy!
■ Swallowing and Yawning
Swallowing or yawning opens up the Eustachian tube to allow movement of air in the middle ear.
This helps the ears to balance the pressure differences by stimulating muscles that block or hinder the flow of air in the Eustachian tube during descent — thereby allowing easy flow of air in the ear tunnel.
If you have a baby with you, you can get them to swallow by giving them a drink or handing them their pacifier. Now you know why some airliners offer candies before take-off and descent!
■ Valsalva Maneuver
You can also use the Valsalva maneuver to protect your ears during ascent and while the aircraft is landing. Sounds like rocket science but it’s quite easy to execute. Simply pinch your nose and gently blow into them with your mouth closed.
This helps to push air into the Eustachian tube and equalize the air pressure with the environment. Thus, providing relief from ear pain.
■ Use Decongestants
You can use either oral or nasal spray decongestants to dry up mucus that will likely block the Eustachian tube. This is a recommended option for travelers with flu or cold.
However, you must always remember that decongestants are not ideal for those within the older age bracket.
So, always ensure that you get your prescriptions and seek medical advice from certified pharmacists. Better still, ALWAYS check in with a licensed physician before your trip.
■ Use Noise-Canceling Headphones
It’s advisable to use over-the-ear headphones rather than plug-in earphones to listen to music or watch movies.
Using plug-in headphones or earbuds for an extended period can cause wax build-up in your ears.
Wax build-up can result in blockage of the Eustachian tube and hinder the ear from equalizing and balancing the air pressure.
While airplane pressure is a phenomenon that won’t be going away anytime soon, you can do away with the discomfort it causes.
Protecting your sense of hearing within and outside flight environments is your primary duty, and I hope this piece has helped make that obligation easier.