Speaking in terms of health for the ears and eardrums, would earplugs that form an airtight seal be dangerous to wear in flight due to cabin pressure changes? What about in the event of a rapid depressurization? And does it make a difference in which phase of flight they're first put on (before take off vs when in cruising altitude)?

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    $\begingroup$ Small planes: You don't want an airtight seal, you just want to block out noise, from the engine and prop mostly. Noise cancelling headsets are great for that, they take out a lot of the low frequency rumbling kind of noise that becomes mentally tiring to listen to after a while, and leaves the higher frequency part of speech from your copilot, passengers, and ATC a lot easier to hear and understand. Commercial jet passenger: same thing, noise cancelling headsets, but without microphones, quiets the jet engine noise some, improves audio book, music, inflight entertainment listenability. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Dec 13 '19 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ For small planes, a normal set of aviation headphones (that is, with a boom mike that plug into your plane's radio jack) works great. Noise cancelling ones, unless they've improved considerably since I last tried them, aren't much of an improvement over normal over-the-ear ones. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 14 '19 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf In my experience of survey flying in light aircraft, active noise cancelling headphones could make a massive difference and were the difference between ringing ears and a headache after a long flight or not. Relatively new Lightspeeds and Bose were the best, the ageing David Clarks were mostly terrible. $\endgroup$
    – Koozer
    Dec 14 '19 at 18:01

I wear earplugs all the time flying in both pressurized and unpressurized environments, and have done it for many years. Air pressure changes have no noticeable effect when wearing foam earplugs as the interface between the foam and ear canal is not totally air tight. The silicone flanged ones made for airline flying have a tiny bleed hole in them (flanged ones are way too uncomfortable for me though).

If anything, on an explosive decompression, the earplugs would help by delaying the escape of pressure on the outside of the eardrum while the pressure equalizes on the inside through the eustachian tubes, which can take a second or two if you have to work your jaw to open them.

Put them in whenever you want and take them out whenever you want.

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    $\begingroup$ How about silicone flanged ones not made for airline flying, with no bleed hole? Would those be dangerous? $\endgroup$
    – d.a.vorm
    Dec 13 '19 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ Haven 't used them flying for a long time, but I think the small volume of air wouldn't be significant. You'd feel some pressure perhaps, and would pull them out. But you'd only feel the trapped pressure after the inner ear had equalized. My guess is it would mitigate the effect of the instantaneous pressure drop on the outside, if anything, because during an explosive decomp you instantly end up with 8 psi in your inner ear pushing OUT on your eardrum until the air gets out. Pressure being retained on the outside temporarily between the earplug and ear drum would mitigate the effect. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Dec 13 '19 at 15:41

Emphatically yes, it is absolutely safe.

Before the advent of noise canceling headsets, all of my Air Force flying was with foam earplugs. I never heard a single caution of any adverse risk, whatsoever. ("Don't eat them," maybe.)

This was in both pressurized & unpressurized aircraft, including missions where we'd depressurize the cabin from 8,000' to mid/high teens for high altitude airdrops, and then repressurize afterwards. Earplugs were never, as far as I ever experienced or heard about, a cause of any discomfort.

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    $\begingroup$ DON'T PUT EARPLUGS IN YOUR NOSE / PUT THEM IN THERE / DO NOT PUT THEM IN THERE ("don't eat them" reminded me of the Marbles episode of the cartoon Home Movies youtu.be/xpz67hBIJwg ) $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Dec 13 '19 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ @ErinAnne Okay, probably a fair point... it wouldn't surprise me if, in all the Air Force tech orders throughout all history, a warning about not putting earplugs into noses made it into at least one. Probably shouldn't underestimate the ability of those documents to cover even the most absurd possibilities. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Dec 14 '19 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ I also wear earplugs while skydiving, both on the way up and down. I consider them mandatory part of the gear to avoid (further) damaging my ears and have never had any issues with them. $\endgroup$
    – vhu
    Dec 14 '19 at 7:50

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