Common Ear Problems when Diving and how to Solve them

Let’s face it – we dive a LOT. We have to take care of ourselves, especially our ears, since divers can be susceptible to ear pain after scuba diving. It is no fun to join one of our diving expeditions and then have to sit on the boat while everyone else is diving! Common ear problems when diving can include difficulty equalizing (also known as ear barotraumas), ear pain, ringing in the ears, or a build up of fluid in the middle ear. Do not fret as such issues can easily be avoided and treated. Equalize regularly and use caution when snorkeling. Read on for what to do if you experience one of these common ear problems when diving.

Raja Ampat Diving
Diving in stunning Raja Ampat, Indonesia


Stuffiness is by far the biggest barrier to ear clearing. Inflamed mucosa in the tubes shrinks the opening, making it harder to force air in and equalize the pressure. And too much sticky mucus can clog the openings, making it nearly impossible to open the tubes no matter what you do. A clear head is the ticket to clear ears.

Here’s what to do:

Flush ’em out. Nasal irrigation systems like NeilMed’s Sinus Rinse or Ayr Sinus Rinse flush out sticky mucus, wash away irritants that inflame your mucosa, and stimulate the cilia (little broom-like hairs) in your nose to help them work better at keeping the passages clean and clear. In a study of 100 divers with ear-clearing troubles, 69 percent of them reported improvement after performing nasal irrigation. Sixty percent of those who routinely used oral decongestants during diving were able to use less or stop taking the medication altogether.

It sounds slightly disgusting, and maybe it is…a little. But it doesn’t sting and you feel an immediate improvement. Irrigation also works dramatically better than saline sprays because it mechanically rinses out thick or crusted mucus in hard to reach places and reduces swelling in the mucosa, so you have more space for air to move in and out.

Drink up:

Dehydration contributes to thick, clumpy mucus. Drinking enough water so that your urine is clear will help thin your mucus and your eustachian tubes will function better. Don’t worry – all of our boats supply unlimited drinking water throughout the day. You may not necessarily feel thirsty, but hydration when diving is key!

Snorkeling in Komodo
Komodo Diving Day Trips on our dive boat


Stub out the smokes:

Anyone who’s ever experienced a mucousy smoker’s cough knows that tobacco smoke irritates the mucosa and promotes more mucus production. Quitting smoking helps to clear your lungs and ears, and of course improves your breathing.

Give the dairy a miss: 

Milk and other dairy products increase mucus production. “Avoid eating dairy for two days before you dive if you have trouble equalizing,” says Frans Cronje, M.D., executive and medical director of DAN Southern Africa.

Avoid additives:

The same foods that can trigger migraine headaches can also contribute to congestion and ear clearing problems. Avoid red wine, chocolate, aged cheeses and foods containing additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate) and nitrites for a few days prior to diving.

Pop a pill:

Although recommended with caution and for no more than three to five days, when all else fails, 60 mg of pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) may do the trick. Be careful, however, as Sudafed can cause side effects that don’t mix well with diving such as a racing heartbeat and can even cause urine obstruction in men. Be sure your body can handle this medication before diving while on it, and ensure not to overdose. Also, because it stimulates your central nervous system, it may influence the nitrogen absorption and increase your risk of oxygen toxicity. Experts advise to be careful taking Sudafed if you are planning dives deeper than 26 metres or using enriched air nitrox. Here at Wicked Diving we strongly discourage their use on a liveaboard due to potential hazards.

Stay hydrated, avoid smoking and dairy, equalize regularly, and you’ll be golden whether on a Similan Island Liveaboard, a three week expedition, a three day dive trip, a Surin Islands snorkeling trip, or a day trip to Komodo. Happy ears means happy divers!

Similan Islands Liveaboard
Fun times in the Similan Islands!