Flying with Tinntius

Dec, 12, 2023

Tinnitus and flying

Airplane travel can be uncomfortable at the best of times – cramped seats, wailing kids… But flying with tinnitus can be an unexpected challenge.

From the hum of the aeroplane engines colliding with the persistent ringing or buzzing in your ears to a worsening feeling of pressure and ear ‘popping’ on descent, flying with tinnitus can present its own unique set of issues for anyone with the common auditory condition.

Let’s look at the science behind tinnitus and air travel, why some experience heightened symptoms during flights, and explore some practical tips for flying with tinnitus that can empower you to reclaim comfort while on board an aircraft.

Can you fly with tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a common hearing condition in which the sufferer perceives sound – usually a ringing or buzzing noise – in the ears or head that isn’t caused by an external sound source. It can be uncomfortable and unpleasant at best to quite distressing at worst. The first thing many tinnitus sufferers want to know before airplane travel is simply: can you fly with tinnitus?

The answer, in short, is yes – but without proper management, you may find the condition worsens while you’re in the sky.

Risks of flying with tinnitus

When travelling on an aeroplane, the cabin's pressure must be controlled to provide a safe and comfortable flight at high altitudes, as the air is not as dense as it is when we’re on the ground. It’s these changes in air pressure that can affect tinnitus sufferers.

Air pressure in the aircraft cabin can change quickly, particularly during take-off and descent, and the part of the ear that regulates air pressure – the eustachian tube – often can’t react fast enough, causing an imbalance in the pressure in the middle ear.

When the pressure in the middle ear doesn’t match the pressure of the environment in the aeroplane cabin, it causes what’s known as ‘airplane ear’, characterised by a moderate discomfort or pain in the ear, a feeling of fullness in your ear, and often muffled hearing or slight to moderate temporary hearing loss.

It can also cause or worsen tinnitus, which can be distressing for those already suffering from the condition. Additionally, the reduction in hearing can make the ringing or buzzing of tinnitus seem worse, as it becomes the dominant sound.

While flying with tinnitus can be unpleasant, there are few dangers of flying with tinnitus. As such, when the pressure does equalise, symptoms should ease. However, if you experience increased symptoms, severe pain, continued ear pressure or hearing loss, vertigo or bleeding from your ear after flying, it’s important to seek medical advice.

Many tinnitus sufferers also worry that the noise within the aircraft cabin will worsen their condition – however, while noise inside the cabin can vary, particularly during take-off and landing, at cruising altitude, noise usually sits between 78–84 dB (with damage to hearing potentially occurring at 85dB for a prolonged period of time). 

Tips for flying with tinnitus

Whether you're a frequent flyer or not, these actionable tips for flying with tinnitus may help make air travel more manageable and less distressing.

  • While it might be tempting to wear earplugs to drown out aircraft cabin noise, this can actually make tinnitus seem worse, as the buzzing or ringing becomes the dominant sound when background noise is eliminated. Instead, listen to music or watch the inflight movies to help take your focus away from your tinnitus.
  • Stress is also closely associated with tinnitus, so practice techniques to help you relax and reduce stress during your flight. Mindfulness, meditation, slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are all techniques you can use during a flight.
  • When booking your flight, consider choosing an aisle seat towards the front of the plane. According to research by Istanbul University, aisle seats are quieter than window seats, and anecdotal evidence from a JetBlue pilot suggests seats towards the front of the plane (in front of the engines, which are on the wing) are the quietest, with noise increasing the further down the plane you go.
  • Yawning and swallowing frequently, chewing gum or sucking on a boiled lolly can all help equalise the pressure between your ears and the environment, inducing the tell-tale ‘pop’ that indicates the pressure has been balanced.
  • Try to avoid travelling when you have a cold or flu – not only is it thoughtful not to spread germs to other passengers, upper respiratory infections can make it more difficult for your eustachian tube to work properly.

While flying with tinnitus can be uncomfortable, it is possible, particularly if you plan ahead and put measures in place to reduce the symptoms while you fly. If you’re concerned about your hearing or flying with tinnitus, contact Bay Audiology – we can help you explore ways to make your flight as pleasant as possible.

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