Sleeping on an overnight trip can be challenging for a variety of reasons. One of the most common complaints, especially during air travel: ear problems. While pain or popping in your ears can be uncomfortable at any time, it can be especially distressing when you’re trying to sleep.
Normally, air in the middle ear passes into the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose with the middle ear, helping your body maintain roughly equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. But when that tube gets blocked, the pressure can’t be equalized and it can create the uncomfortable feeling of a vacuum. Sounds might be muffled because the eardrum doesn’t vibrate normally, or you might hear a clicking sound in the ear.
Colds and allergies are common causes of a blocked Eustachian tube—and trouble with ear pressure—since a stuffed up nose can block the opening. Changes in air pressure, such as during air travel or while driving through a mountainous region can also trigger irritation, since they require larger and more frequent adjustments by the Eustachian tube to stay equalized.
While your body usually makes adjustments automatically to keep you comfortable, during these extreme swings you can help your body out by swallowing or yawning. That’s why as much as you may want to put on your sleep mask, insert your earplugs, and go straight to sleep for the duration of the flight, it’s best to stay awake during the takeoff and descent. When you sleep, you may not swallow enough to keep up with the changes and prevent blocked ears. Instead, try chewing on gum or sucking on a hard candy to encourage yourself to swallow until the plain reaches altitude, and then go to sleep.
In fact, pressure in the ear naturally rises the longer you sleep, likely in part because you only swallow an average of 2.4 times per hour while sleeping. Lying down may also be a factor, since air doesn’t pass as freely through the Eustachian tube when you’re reclined.
If you have a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection, or you just know that your ears don’t do well with the air pressure changes of air travel, a decongestant medicine may help shrink swollen membranes so the ears pop more easily.
Finally, ask the flight attendant to wake you before landing so you can make sure to clear your ears during the plane’s descent, which can often be the most challenging part of the flight for your ears to maintain equilibrium. If swallowing and yawning don’t work, pinch the nostrils and gently try to blow out. Doing so creates a slight pressure buildup that can to help get things settled.