Flight Attendant Ear ProblemsI've been having major ear problems recently. :(
“Never fly if your ears are blocked!” my instructors told us at flight attendant school. 

I took their warning seriously especially after one guest speaker swore he sat on the jumpseat next to a flight attendant whose eardrum ruptured and caused blood to “pour out of her ear” as she “screamed in pain”.

Not wanting to suffer the same fate, I’ve been cautious this year when I’ve fallen ill.  I don’t usually get sick, but this year I’ve somehow caught three bouts of either the flu or a sinus infection.  The too-busy-to-talk walk-in clinic doctor didn’t think it was necessary to diagnose me and quickly prescribed medication that “would cure either thing.”  (Ohh-kay???  Thanks, doc?)

Due to my health and ear problems, I've had to drop two trips so far which will cost me a lot of money and make my next few paychecks look pretty pathetic.  I’m feeling better now, but started second-guessing my decision to stay home instead of "toughing it out".  (I wasn't contagious when I dropped the second flight, but I still had an earache.)  To assuage my fears and clear up myths about flying with clogged ears, I’ve done a little research and I’m happy to share my findings with you!  I’ll post them below in a Question and Answer form. 

Have YOU ever had a problem with your ears during flight?  What helped you?

Hope to hear from you!  Happy travels!
~Jenn Grahams

Can an eardrum rupture inflight due to pressurization problems?

PictureSnagged this pict when I saw the doctor.
Yes.  According to this article at Patient.co.uk, in rare cases a person’s eardrum can rupture when the middle ear is unable to adjust after a sudden change in air pressure (like when the plane is descending).  A perforated (meaning ruptured) eardrum causes hearing loss, but fortunately, the ear will heal itself over time in most cases.

Could the story about the flight attendant’s bleeding ear be true?

Yes, but it’s more likely an embellished story.  According to many medical articles (including THIS one at Entnet.org), a perforated eardrum usually results in a liquid discharge – NOT blood.  In some rare causes, blood may be included in the discharge, but only if the ear is injured internally.  In our story, the flight attendant would have needed to perhaps bang her head on something or have injured her ear in some way - perhaps by poking something forcibly inside it.

What sort of medical examinations are required before becoming a flight attendant?

In the United States, the FAA mandates medical exams for all airline crew members.  At my airline, I was required to take (and pass!) the medical exam BEFORE I was admitted into flight attendant school.  The flight attendant physical exam is less stringent compared to the requirements for pilots, but there are certain visual and hearing criteria that need to be met before someone can qualify to be a flight attendant.  As part of my exam, I went into a soundproof room and took a hearing test in which I pressed a button every time I heard a beep.  The beeps changed pitch and became progressively softer.  A nurse also stuck a probe in my ear that supposedly registered whether or not my ears could properly pressurize inflight.  (She had trouble getting my right ear to give a passing reading so perhaps I’ve always been doomed to have these ear problems.)

What causes ear pressurization problems?  How can I unblock my ears inflight?

This well-written article titled “Ears and Altitude” explains the problem thoroughly and describes the most common methods for unblocking your ears.

Surprisingly NOT mentioned is the method where you place a cup of hot water next to your ear (making sure to keep the water from splashing INSIDE the ear)!  The steam supposedly helps relieve the pressure.  I tried it once when I had a bad cold and it seemed to work although the timing could have been coincidental. 

When I’m flying, I have to pop my ears numerous times a day.  With practice I’ve gotten to the point where swallowing hard or yawning will usually do the trick.

While doing my research, I discovered that several businesses are selling ear popping devices.  I have no idea whether or not these are actually useful (or safe?), but if anyone knows please write me in the comments below.

Do passengers often complain about their ears? 
Have you ever had an inflight medical emergency where a passenger could not pop their ears?

I get a handful of complaints and worried passengers every month that can’t pop their ears right away while inflight.  Usually it’s a panicking mother with a toddler.  I can’t offer much assistance other than quote the different methods I know for unblocking ears. (We aren’t allowed to use the steam method because that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen!  Think turbulence and boiling water…not a good combo.)  We would never divert a flight or land early if a passenger was experiencing ear problems.  If the pain was extreme, we might seek out medical assistance, but we won’t divert or land a plane early unless it is a true medical emergency.  The passenger would unfortunately have to endure the ear discomfort for the rest of the flight.  Fortunately, blocked ears usually cause only minor pain.

Interesting Fact.  If everyone on the plane starts having ear discomfort / ear blockage at the same time, it means you're probably about to experience a rapid decompression so get ready to grab your oxygen mask!  Just another fun thing you get to think about all the time when you're a flight attendant.  :)  My ears usually only "pop" on ascent and descent so if it happens inflight, I always tense up, turn to my crewmate and ask, "Are your ears popping?"  Thankfully, the answer has always been no.


    Jenn Grahams

    is a flight attendant and an aspiring writer.  She lives in the Midwest with her husband, many pet fish, and two chinchillas named Kuzco and Pancho.

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