What is going on when my ears pop?

What really happens to your ears when you dive or climb

Have you ever wondered...

Why do my ears feel full, like they need to pop, when I dive in a pool, drive up a mountain, or fly in an airplane?

So, what's going on?

Summertime has begun, and many kids are suiting up and going swimming! They are putting on their goggles and racing their neighbors to the bottom of the deep end to pick up the diving rings and bring them to the surface. Some kids are going to the mountains with their parents to get some cool mountain air, roast s'mores, and go hiking. Other kids are stepping on airplanes, flying up into the clouds, and landing in new places they haven't seen before. What weird feeling do each of these kids have in common? Their ears pop!

"Ok, good, it's not just me," you might be thinking. You're right. This happens to everyone at some point in their life. The full feeling in your ears actually has a technical name: barotrauma. Barotrauma of the ear refers to the failure to equalize pressure in your ear with the pressure in the environment outside your ear.

Humans have a special tube that connects from the back of the nose to the middle ear space. It's called the Eustachian tube. Normally, this tube opens and closes to equalize pressure. But, when the pressure around you changes quickly (like when you dive off the diving board, drive up a mountain, or fly in an airplane) the system gets thrown off and the ear doesn't always do a great job of quickly equalizing pressure. As a result, your ears feel full, clogged, or like they need to pop.

Oh no! This sounds like a big problem! Should I go to the doctor when this happens? Answer: Nope! Most of the time, barotrauma fixes itself. Your Eustachian tube opens, pressure is released, and your ears feel fine in no time. When you swallow, the Eustachian tube opens and closes, so chewing gum, yawning, or having a drink nearby will help relieve the symptoms of barotrauma. Mothers should feed bottles to their babies on airplanes so they can relieve pressure, too. And, let's face it. People don't like it when babies cry on planes. If the barotrauma is really bad, the negative pressure in your middle ear will pull your eardrum inward and could cause it to rupture. If this happens, you will experience extreme pain and should see your doctor immediately.

If you have allergies or asthma, barotrauma might be worse for you. You should take allergy medicine or an antihistamine when you know you are going to be experiencing some pressure changes. If you experience barotrauma and the pain or weird feeling persists, you should see your doctor.

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Try it out: Activities!

It's getting warm outside, so (if you know how to swim) dive into a nearby pool and touch the bottom of the deep end. Take note of how your ears feel. When you get to the surface, tell your friends what you learned about that feeling! Tell them all about barotrauma. You'll sound so intelligent! Here's a link with more information about barotrauma if you want to learn more. http://american-hearing.org/disorders/barotrauma/

Barotrauma can also happen to marine life. Take a few minutes to read about barotrauma in whales. Sometimes, whales suddenly die and are washed up on the surface of beaches. Scientists aren't exactly sure why this happens, but barotrauma is a possibility. If whales shoot to the surface of the water too quickly after seismic plates on the ocean floor move or loud sonar waves are emitted, they may not be able to equalize pressure and might die. Spend some time reading about whale barotrauma off the coast of Alaska last year: http://www.alaskapublic.org/2014/04/24/noaa-investigating-rare-whale-beachings/