Why do my ears pop when I fly in a plane?

We’ve all been on a plane before and had our ears pop. Well I’m assuming you have. If not, hopefully you’ve at least spent some time going up and down hills and had your ears pop then. Not the most unusual phenomena our bodies like to throw at us, but still quite an annoying one at times.

Watch this video for a quick explanation, or keep reading for something a bit more in depth!

The reason our ears pop is all to do with pressure. Not the sort of pressure you feel when you have to finish all those assignments for uni, or when your boss brings forward a deadline from next month to tomorrow. This pressure is all about the air.

Air doesn’t weigh much, but when you have an entire atmosphere of it sitting on top of you, it gets pretty powerful. At sea level, every square centimetre of surface area has 1kg of air pushing on it. Imagine 1 litre of water pushing on your thumbnail. Now imagine 1 litre of water on every square centimetre of your entire body. All added up, you have about 3 elephants worth of air pressure on your body all the time. We don’t feel this pressure because we have about 3 elephants worth of pressure inside our body pushing out too. It’s only when the pressures become unequal that we notice it.

The higher you are, the less air there is above you, and the lower the air pressure. When we go up in a plane we reach heights of more than 10km above sea level, and the air pressure is much lower. The air in our ears however, has nowhere to go, and so the pressure stays the same.  This comparatively higher pressure wants to escape, and pushes on our ear drums in an attempt to do so.  Our ear drums stretch slightly, making our ears ache and reducing our hearing.

The air does have one escape route however – through the oddly named Eustachian tubes that run from our ears to the back of our throat. They are usually closed but we can open them by moving our jaw – yawning, swallowing and chewing gum all do the trick! Now some of the air can leave our ears and the pressure is equal again.

The opposite happens as the plane descends – the air pressure outside increases again, and the pressure is unequal. Sore ears, fuzzy hearing, you know the drill. A few yawns and a stick or two of gum and you can let the air back into the Eustachian tubes, equal the pressure out, and have a lovely time waiting for your things at baggage claim.

Unfortunately, not all Eustachian tubes are alike, and some people have more trouble with changes in air pressure. Sinus infections, middle ear infections and smoking can all stop them from working properly, which means a lot more time before the pressure evens out again.



Filed under Physics, Transport

11 responses to “Why do my ears pop when I fly in a plane?

  1. Loved it Caitlin! Great explanation written in a fun and accessible way. Keep it coming 🙂

  2. And the video is AMAZING! How did you do it??

  3. Science MIA

    Thanks Emma! Another one coming very soon 🙂
    I did the video by taking a lot of photos (about 200!), and then loading them into Windows Media Player – you just set the duration to something tiny like 0.2 seconds per picture, and voila! The voice over is bad quality, just recorded on my laptop, but I’m pretty thrilled with the actual images 😀

  4. Elizabeth

    Nice work Caitie!!

  5. Anonymous

    great, even i understood that!! love your work!!

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