Does That Viral Paper Towel Hack Actually Help With In-Flight Ear Pain? A Doctor Tells Us

Ear problems mid-flight can range from annoying pops to excruciating pain. The discomfort is largely thanks (or no thanks) to changes in air pressure, particularly when a plane ascends and descends in the air. Unfortunately, you can't stop air pressure in the plane cabin from changing throughout your flight, but you can put an end to awful airplane ear symptoms — or so some people on the internet claim.

A flight attendant who goes by Cierra Mistt posted a viral YouTube clip featuring an easy hack for managing ear pain in the air. Simply ask the cabin crew for a cup of hot water and some napkins, then place the napkins in the steamy cup. When the water is no longer piping hot (but still warm), place the cup over the affected ear for relief.

The method made its way to TikTok, too, such as in a popular video posted by The Ear Nurse. However, not every hack is as easy or effective as it can appear on social media. To find out if the paper towel technique really works, we tapped Dr. Jason Singh, Chief Medical Officer and Physician at One Oak Medical. As he exclusively tells Explore, the hack could do more harm than good.

The steamy paper towel hack comes with a few risks

Pressure in the ear can make a long flight feel torturous, and as some content creators suggest, the steamy paper towel trick might offer a bit of comfort. "This hack does feel soothing temporarily due to the warmth," Dr. Jason Singh explains. However, the medical expert notes, "I haven't come across any evidence to support its effectiveness in treating underlying ear conditions."

Moreover, Dr. Singh shares with us that you could even cause more ear pain than you started with by trying the viral method. Firstly, if the water and steam in the cup are too hot, you could burn your skin and ear canal. "Also, introducing moisture into the ear canal can disrupt natural mechanisms and increase risk of bacterial or fungal infections, which I have seen as complications in my practice as result of this method," notes Dr. Singh. Though it can be tempting to try the quick fix during an uncomfortable flight, know that you might spend your vacation treating a new ear condition as a result.

How to prevent in-flight ear pain

If you experience ear popping and pain while flying, Dr. Jason Singh has a few suggestions — and you won't have to ask the flight attendants for a cup of boiling water or a wad of napkins. The physician's first tip is to travel with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to keep inflammation and ear pain under control. "Also consider decongestants, especially nasal ones, [which] can alleviate ear pain, which may be referred from sinus pressure and congestion," Dr. Singh tells us. Be sure to consult with your doctor before trying any new treatments or medicines.

For an easy solution, the doctor also recommends chewing on a piece of gum or candy, since the combination of chewing and swallowing may help equalize pressure inside the ear. Even if you don't have gum or candy on hand, Dr. Singh suggests avoiding sleeping during landing so you can actively swallow and yawn as the plane descends (the same rule applies if you notice pressure during takeoff, too).

Most importantly, don't ignore ongoing ear symptoms. Dr. Singh urges, "If ear pain persists or worsens, it is important to seek medical care, as it could be a sign of [an] underlying condition, such as [an] ear infection, impacted earwax, or a ruptured eardrum."