When you fly, there are changes in altitude and barometric pressure that causes a pressure difference to develop on either side of the eardrum, between the middle ear and outside of the body. The Eustachian tube is a connection between the middle ear and the back of the nose. “Popping the ear” involves opening the eustachian tube to relieve the pressure difference that occurs during flights.
Pressure, fullness, ringing, and hearing loss can occur if you are not able to equalize the pressure difference by popping your ears. In severe cases, dizziness, bleeding from the ear, an ear infection, or a ruptured ear drum can result.
Popping the ears (or opening the eustachian tubes) can be achieved by swallowing, yawning, or gum chewing. You can use decongestants (Sudafed), nasal decongestant sprays (Afrin, Sinex), and antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec) as needed. Over-the-counter pain medications (Tylenol, Aleve, Motrin, ibuprofen, etc.) can help with ear pain.
In most cases, ear pain and pressure are self-limited and symptoms go away on their own. You may need to see a physician if symptoms do not go away after 24 hours. Avoid flying when you are congested from allergies or a cold. Stay awake and take small frequent sips of water during takeoff and landing. Using filtered earplugs can also help slowly equalize the pressure between the middle ear and outside of the body.