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’Ringing in the brain’: How air travel can impact sufferers of tinnitus

When you are on a flight, a disruption in pressure occurs, and the Eustachian tube does not react quickly enough. Picture: Josh Sorenson from Pexels.

When you are on a flight, a disruption in pressure occurs, and the Eustachian tube does not react quickly enough. Picture: Josh Sorenson from Pexels.

Published Apr 5, 2022

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Imagine having to deal with a constant, annoying ringing sound in your ear. Well, there are many who suffer from a condition called Tinnitus, which is sound in the head with no external source.

This means that they are the only ones who can hear the sound, and there is nothing external to the human body making the noise.

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According to a Harvard Health Publishing report, for many, it's a ringing sound, while for others, it's whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking.

It is also noted that the sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating.

Tinnitus can be caused by loud noise, medications that damage the nerves in the ear (ototoxic drugs), impacted earwax, middle ear problems (such as infections and vascular tumours), and ageing.

In addition, Josef Rauschecker states in an informative YouTube video that it is not only loud noises that are the cause of tinnitus, but high-stress situations can also cause one to develop this condition.

Katie Ogden, audiologist and Training Manager for hearing ReSound in North-West Europe, highlights how and why air travel can impact sufferers of tinnitus and how they can manage their symptoms ahead of any travel plans they have booked this summer.

How does air travel impact our overall hearing?

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Have you ever been on a road and your ears suddenly feel weird, like something is blocking your ears and throat?

As an organ, the overall purpose of the hearing function of the ear is to convert sound waves into electrochemical impulses for the brain to process. The ear is made up of three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner.

The outer ear consists of the ear canal, which funnels the sound waves to the eardrum. At this point, the middle ear takes over. It’s a cavity coated with mucus consisting of the three little bones - the malleus, incus and stapes.

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Bear in mind the middle ear portion is an airtight cavity linked to the back of your throat by the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube is essentially a valve that opens and closes, and often this is a subconscious action enabled by chewing, yawning, and swallowing.

When you are on a flight, a disruption in pressure occurs, and the Eustachian tube does not react quickly enough. Then we get the feeling of pressure, sound becomes muffled due to the restricted movement of the eardrum, and when the Eustachian tube reacts, we get the feeling of our ears ‘popping’. This is simply the pressure releasing from the middle ear and is often painless, quick and frequent fliers to be expected.

Why can tinnitus symptoms worsen on a flight?

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Should the Eustachian tube fail to do its job for any reason – Eustachian tube dysfunction – then there is a possibility that tinnitus can be heightened, but this tends to be temporary for most.

In some extreme cases, the ‘ear popping’ experience on a plane can be painful, yet when this occurs, it tends to be because of a rapid descent during the flight, which is rare in itself.

There is sadly no cure for Tinnitus. Even those with chronic tinnitus will likely not experience any changes in their tinnitus on flights, and for those that do, it is commonly temporary, but should you have prolonged effects because of a flight, seek advice from a heath or hearing care professional.

Tips for managing the symptoms of tinnitus ahead of & during the flight

For those that find the engine noise distressing, the seats in front of the wing tend to be quietest, and the use of soft earplugs can be helpful.

Listening to music can be a good way to relax and take your mind off the situation. Bear in mind the volume levels. You don’t want the volume too loud, causing a temporary threshold shift.

If the sound of the engines is not a problem, then avoid using any earplugs as blocking external sound can increase the sound of tinnitus. For most, tinnitus is commonly an issue in quieter places because we have less environmental noise to mask it.

If you have been fitted with hearing aids or wearable noise generators, then wear these during the flight, too. If the noise of the engines does seem a little loud with the hearing aids, then just turn them down a little rather than take them out.

For those who are anxious about flying, which in turn heightens the tinnitus, look into the option of breathing and relaxation exercises before the build-up and during flying.

For those that find the pressure change an issue, sucking on a sweet of some kind or chewing gum can help as it causes the Eustachian tube to continue to open and close, equalising that pressure.

Tinnitus should not be a barrier to you taking that trip because, like tinnitus in everyday life, it can be managed. If you do have any questions or concerns, have a chat with your health or hearing professional, and they can always give further advice.

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