Ear Barotrauma

What is ear barotrauma?

Ear barotrauma is a common ear condition that occurs as a result of air pressure changes in the air or water surrounding the ear. Those experiencing ear barotrauma typically experience some pain or discomfort, although symptoms typically pass quite quickly. While most cases are soon resolved, chronic cases do also occur.

Ear barotrauma symptoms

There are many different symptoms of ear barotrauma, with the severity and duration of those experienced varying from case to case. 

Some of the most common symptoms of ear barotrauma include:

  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Ringing in the ears
  • A feeling of fullness within the ear
  • Mild hearing loss
  • General discomfort within the ear

People experiencing a more severe case of ear barotrauma may also experience:

  • Nosebleeds
  • Ear pain
  • Greater difficulty hearing
  • Increased pressure within the ear
  • Bleeding from within the ear

Although most cases of ear barotrauma resolve themselves over time, some people with the condition may experience prolonged hearing loss and dizziness. For those with ear barotrauma, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears) can also be another persistent symptom. It’s best to follow your GP or audiologist’s advice and seek treatment if your symptoms persist, or if you experience any new symptoms.

Experiencing symptoms of ear barotrauma? Contact your local audiologist

Causes of ear barotrauma

There are a number of different reasons why someone may experience ear barotrauma, with the most common being scuba diving and air travel. This occurs when the pressure within the ear differs from that of the air or water surrounding it.

Ear barotrauma may also occur when the eustachian tube, a tube that leads from your ears to your nose and throat, is blocked. This may occur as a result of:

  • Allergies
  • A cold or an infection
  • Congestion within the sinuses
  • The size or shape of your ear canal
  • Exposure to irritants including cigarette smoke
  • Some hormonal changes

Ear barotrauma treatment

For many cases caused by air travel or scuba diving, the ear barotrauma recovery time is quite short, with most symptoms generally resolving themselves soon after you’ve returned to solid ground. There are some simple actions that you can take to help relieve discomfort if it persists, including chewing gum, swallowing, yawning and taking either decongestants or antihistamines.

Cases that have been caused by an ear infection or another type of illness may take longer to resolve, with the initial cause of the condition needing to be treated first.

Sometimes, additional ear barotrauma treatments are required. These may include the use of nasal decongestants and steroids to help open up the eustachian tube, a course of antibiotics, or taking some painkillers to reduce discomfort. For chronic cases, small cylinders, known as ear grommets, may need to be surgically implanted to help relieve the discomfort and pain caused by ear barotrauma.

Preventing ear barotrauma

It’s normal to experience ear barotrauma occasionally, especially when you’re travelling, but recurring and severe cases are best avoided where possible. To help reduce your chances of experiencing ear barotrauma, you might consider using earplugs designed for air travel, which may help to slow the effects of pressure changes, or taking decongestants or antihistamines before you fly. When travelling by plane, try to also stay awake throughout the take-off and landing.

If you plan to go scuba diving, it can be a good idea to not only equalise your ears before you hop in the water and as you descend, but to also head into the water feet first. If you start to feel pain while diving, make your way back to the surface slowly. Ignoring this warning sign could leave your ears injured more permanently. If you have recently experienced ear barotrauma, be sure to stay on dry land until your ears have fully recovered. Diving again before you’ve fully recovered could lead to further injury.

To help prevent ear barotrauma from ear infections and other illnesses, keep your ears clean and dry. Be sure to also keep your hands clean and avoid people who are ill to slow the spread of infection.

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