Under Pressure

As we boarded the plan from Lukla back to Katmandu, we all felt happy with the high of having made it to Everest Base Camp. I was still nervous about the short flight in the tiny, unpressurized plane but I figured that odds were with us and we already had to worst behind us.

As we boarded the plane we talked excitedly about our plans for arriving in Katmandu. Hot showers, good food, and a day of relaxing. We couldn’t have been more excited.

The plane took off and we cruised up to the now familiar view of the Himalayan Mountains. The flight was short, and within twenty minutes we were approaching Katmandu. I started to feel a pressure in my ears – the feeling you get as they start to pop. I’ve never had a problem with my ears popping on flights before, but for some reason this time I could not clear them. I tried swallowing, pretending to chew and plugging my nose while blowing against my ears.

As the plane started to land, the pressure built more and more until it was all I could think about. I pressed my hands on either side of my head and squeezed as hard as could until the wheels touched down. Finally, with a huge painful pop and a rush of air I felt my ears clear. Immediate relief. I felt 100 times better.

Then, minutes later I felt the pressure begin again in my right ear. Soon it was just as bad it was on the plane. I tried again and again to pop my ears – plugging my nose and blowing harder and harder until it cleared. Moments later, the pressure started again. This went on and one for hours – gradually getting worse with the time between the pressure building getting shorter and shorter.

By 2 pm my right ear was so painful that all I wanted to do was lie in bed and feel bad for myself. I tried everything – drinking water, swallowing, taking sudafed. I did some internet research and thought maybe the issue was a blockage, so I tried some hydrogen peroxide drops. If anything, it just made it worse. Finally, I was desperate and the only option seemed to be the hospital.

We arrived at the hospital and were told that the next doctor wouldn’t be in for two hours. I had no choice but to wait. At 4pm, we were finally sent in to see the doctor. It was a dismaying sight. An Indian man, who looked more suited to be a rock climbing instructor than a doctor, sat in an empty room with a desk. There wasn’t much in the way of doctoring equipment.

The doctor asked me the issue and after I described it he asked me if I had tried plugging my nose and blowing.

Yeah. About four hours ago. Thanks.

With that, he took a brief look in my ear using nothing but a flashlight and told me I would need to see an Ear Noose and Throat doctor. Goodbye.

Of course, the ENT wasn’t available until 6:30. The pain was only getting worse and I had already  been waiting for two hours. I couldn’t believe that I now had another long, painful wait in front of me. So we waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally it was time to see the ENT. My hopes were low after our last doctor encounter. I walked in and was relieved to see medical like instruments in the room. Soon I was joined by a stern looking women in a sari. Within minutes she had checked out my ear with an actual viewer and not just a flashlight and had diagnosed my perforated ear drum.

She told me it was caused by the unpressurized plane and my mistake of plugging my nose and blowing. Apparently that is a huge no, no. Sadly, it was exactly what the other doctor had recommended I do to stop the pressure.

She prescribed me a bunch of medications and told me the ear could take up to four months to heal. Which means – no swimming for four months…on my trip to South East Asia. Brilliant.

IMPORTANT: Since I saw this in the comments a lot, I wanted to add something that the doctor told me. You should never EVER plug your nose and blow to relieve the pressure. Apparently doing this was exactly what hurt my ear. Instead you should swallow gently or chew gum.


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8 Responses to Under Pressure

  1. memographer says:

    I am so sorry for you. I also had an ear problem after one flight. You can’t really do much. Just have to wait till it is healed. Get well soon.

  2. Oh no, that is the absolute worst! I too have never had problems with my ears prior to this trip, but on our flight to Japan I had TERRIBLE blockage issues with my ears due to congestion, and when we’ve done diving I have had problems clearing my ears on occasion. It has made me practice how to equalize them, but I admit, I have no idea what one should do when traveling in an unpressurized plane… I would have thought you’d use the same techniques as when diving, of which, plug your nose and (gently) blow is one of them. Did the doctor say what you ought to have done instead?

    And what a bummer that you have to stay out of the water (or at least keep your head above it) for the next 4 months! Couldn’t have come at a worse time!

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      The doctor actually said you should never ever blow with your nose plugged as that can really damage your ears. She said that was what hurt my ear. Instead she suggested swallowing, chewing gum, etc.

  3. Dave says:

    I also battle with pressure on flights, never had it like this though. Once a guy told me to hold my nose and mouth and blow out, which sometimes works, but I’ve heard you can pop your ear drum that way as well…

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Dave- That is exactly how I hurt mine. The doctor said you should NEVER hold your nose and blow out as it is very bad for your ears.

  4. Vicky says:

    WOW that is unfortunate and annoying! How is your ear feeling now? No pain at least? You can always swim with your head above water!!

  5. Marco Fiori says:

    Oh damn, that’s the worst. Every time I fly with a cold I get the worst ear pain. I’ve never perforated it, but I can imagine the discomfort. That’s so unfortunate! Hope it doesn’t hurt and it’s just the no swimming

  6. Lisa says:

    I feel your pain since I’m dealing with this exact injury right now! Doc says to avoid air travel for awhile… worst news ever.

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