As reported by BBC News, a flight from Dublin, Ireland to Zadar, Croatia this weekend didn’t exactly go smoothly.
The Ryanair flight, which embarked on its journey on July 14, had to make an emergency landing in Frankfurt. Although everyone’s alive and (fairly) well, events did appear to cause some to bleed from their ears and nose.
According to reports, oxygen masks were deployed as the plane carried out a controlled descent, moving from a height of 11,300 meters to 3,000 meters (around 37,000 to 9,850 feet) in just seven minutes.
Although a fairly standard procedure carried out in the event of a cabin depressurization event, the downward acceleration the passengers would have felt would have been indubitably terrifying. The plane ultimately landed safely, but 33 of the 189 passengers were hospitalized as a precaution.
As you might suspect, the incidences of bleeding are down to the air pressure changes within the cabin.
When you’re at cruising altitude in an airplane, the cabin air pressure is equivalent to that at the top of a small mountain. This means that, as is the case up mountains, there’s less oxygen available, and gases within your body expand. This has no effect on healthy passengers, but those with trapped tummy gas will now be more prone to farting and burping.
Either way, you can feel the air pressure changes as the plane climbs and descends. As it rises, your ears “pop”, which is caused by air rushing out of your middle ear and sinuses and into the increasingly lower pressure zone in the cabin. As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), as the plane descends, the air pressure rises, and air moves back into your ears.
The cabin uncontrollably losing pressure, either rapidly or gradually, is a cause for concern, and triggers some unnerving biological changes.
It has a number of causes, but the end result is the same: a lack of oxygen in the body, or hypoxia. That’s why oxygen masks fall from the ceiling – in order to stop you losing consciousness. If rapid enough, it also causes air to suddenly rush out of your ears and sinuses.
That’s indeed why the Ryanair flight descended rapidly, to get to a zone of higher air pressure to stop the cabin air from leaking out. This would also cause air to very quickly rush into people’s ears.
One of these two sudden pressure change events probably triggered damage to the middle ear, something known as ear barotrauma. This can occur during normal flight climbs and descents, often leading to moderate pain and muffled hearing.
The part of the ear that "handles" the changing air pressure is called the eustachian tube, which allows the passage of bubbles of air through it in order to maintain its internal pressure. If it's blocked, say by a sinus infection, or you're unable to yawn and replenish its air supply, it makes ear barotrauma more likely to happen.
In addition, if the air pressure changes very quickly or to an extreme point, symptoms can also be more intense. The Mayo Clinic notes that these include severe pain, ear ringing, vertigo-induced vomiting, and, if the eardrum ruptures, bleeding from your ears. Although currently unconfirmed, it's likely this is what took place on this particular flight.
Sure, this all sounds rather grim, but it has to be stressed that commercial flights are increasingly safe forms of an already very safe method of transport. You’re magnitudes more likely to die in a car accident in any given year than you are to die on a flight or in a plane crash, the odds of which are ludicrously low.
In fact, 2017 was the safest year in history for commercial airlines, and incidences like this are incredibly rare.