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Whether it’s due to the boredom of a long flight or to try and combat jet lag, for some of us, as soon as we get on a flight it’s a race to get to sleep.

Indeed, a large number of us even go to the extent of buying or being prescribed sleeping pills in order to get their flight time sleep. Yet new research has come to light that may put us off our plane naps for life.

AirplaneConducted by Harvard University, researchers have discovered that if we’re asleep on a plane and there’s a sudden change in altitude we are less capable of equalising the pressure in our eardrums, which may lead to permanent ear damage.

We most often notice this altitude change during take-off and landing, when we feel that popping sensation in our ears. Sometimes we’ll also feel like there’s a blockage in our ear due to the popping, which can be alleviated by swallowing or yawning. This is usually why people will suck on a boiled sweet or mint as a plane takes off.

As you suck on a sweet, you are more likely to swallow more, which opens the Eustachian tube, a thin canal in the ear that equalises pressure. So, when you feel that unpleasant ear popping sensation – caused by the pressure on the outside of our ears not matching the pressure inside – the best way to alleviate it is by opening your Eustachian tube.

Unfortunately, when we’re asleep, we do not notice the blocked feeling and we don’t swallow or yawn instinctively to relieve it. And, when we’re on a long-haul flight, this means our ears can sit blocked for hours leading to ear infections and/or ear barotrauma.

Usually seen in divers due to underwater pressure, barotrauma can be extremely uncomfortable with symptoms such as dizziness, hearing loss, pain and occasionally bleeding from the nose or ears. Extreme barotrauma can even result in an erupted ear drum that will take months to heal or, worse, need surgery to correct the problem.

Generally, though, barotrauma will fix itself, with most cases curing themselves over one to two weeks. Consciously yawning/swallowing more, chewing gum and avoiding other flights or pressure can help speed up the process.

To help reduce your chances of developing ear barotrauma on your next flight, first avoid sleeping during take-off or landing, however, you can still sleep during your flight. This is easier on the way up, but on the way down, either ask a flight attendant or person beside you to wake you. Or, you could tilt your seat back, as most attendants will wake you to correct your seat before descent.

When you are going up and down, concentrate on chewing or swallowing, which is easily achieved through a sweet or chewing gum. Don’t be alarmed by your ears popping either, as it’s a blocking or stuffed feeling that leads to trauma.

It should be kept in mind that children and babies can be particularly susceptible to barotrauma, so although you may think getting them asleep for take-off will make your flight easier, it might be better to wait until the kids are in the air to let them sleep and wake them up again before descending.   

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