Barotrauma is pain or tissue damage due to a change in pressure. It happens when pressure outside the body is different from pressure inside the body. This leads the air inside the body to shrink or swell.
Pressure changes may affect the:
- Middle ears (most common)
- Lungs (most serious)
Normal Anatomy of the Ear
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
Barotrauma is caused by:
- Sudden or severe changes in pressure
- Blockages in the ears, sinuses, or lungs
Things that raise the risk of this problem are:
Blockages in the inner ear can raise the risk of barotrauma. They may be caused by:
- Middle ear infections
- Problems in the eustachian tube—a small tube that connects the middle ear to the throat
- Cleft palate
Things that raise the risk of sinus barotrauma are:
Lung problems or damage may raise the risk for barotrauma in the lungs.
Other things that may raise the risk are:
Symptoms of barotrauma depend on the areas affected.
In the ears, it may cause:
- Discomfort or pain in one or both ears
- A clogged or pressured feeling in the ears
Ringing in the ear—
- Rarely, bleeding from the ear
In the sinuses, it may cause:
- Sinus pressure and/or pain
- A feeling of fullness in the head
- Headaches or tooth pain
In the lungs, it may cause:
- Breathing problems
- Chest pain or a feeling of fullness
- Pain that spreads to the neck and/or shoulders
- Confusion, seizure, loss of consciousness, or coma
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will look in the ears for irritation or damage.
If the lungs could be affected, tests may be:
Treatment depends on the area affected. Barotrauma in the lungs is serious. It needs care right away.
Treatment options for barotrauma may be:
- Easing pressure in the ear by:
- Chewing gum
- Gently breathing through the nose while pinching the nostrils
- Medicines to ease a stuffy nose and sinuses, such as:
- Decongestant nasal sprays
- Oral decongestants
- Oral antihistamines
- Pain medicines
- Antibiotics—to treat infections from bacteria
- Surgery to ease pressure in the ears—if other methods do not work
Lung barotrauma is treated right away with oxygen. It is given through a face mask or a tube under the nose.
To reduce the risk of this problem:
- When flying:
- Ease pressure—with ear plugs, chewing gum, yawning, or mouth breathing
- With a cold or sinus problems—cancel the flight or take a decongestant
- Before diving:
- Get trained and certified
- Follow safety guidelines
Barotrauma. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/injury-during-diving-or-work-in-compressed-air/barotrauma. Accessed March 1, 2021.
Diving precautions and prevention of diving injuries. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/injury-during-diving-or-work-in-compressed-air/diving-precautions-and-prevention-of-diving-injuries. Updated July 2017. Accessed March 1, 2021.
Ears and altitude. American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/ears-and-altitude. Accessed March 1, 2021.
Evaluation and management of middle ear trauma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/evaluation-and-management-of-middle-ear-trauma. Accessed March 1, 2021.
Rozycki SW, Brown MJ, et al. Inner ear barotrauma in divers: an evidence-based tool for evaluation and treatment. Diving Hyperb Med. 2018;48(3):186-193.
Last reviewed January 2021 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 3/1/2021