What Happens to Your Body When a Plane Loses Pressure

Everyone who has traveled by plane before knows that there is a checklist of things that needs to be gone over in order for the plane to take off.Unfortunately for the passengers on flight 9W 697, this was not the case. The crew was unable to perform even the basic check, and that is whether the cabin has been pressurized.As a result, many of the passengers awoke from their naps to intense pain in the ears as well as blood coming from their ears and noses. Definitely not the sensation you want to experience during any point of a flight.

In order to better understand what these passengers went through, we need to establish some things first.

What Does Pressurizing the Cabin of a Plane Exactly Do?

At higher altitudes, the air is under a lot less pressure and becomes harder to inhale. This is because there is more space between the molecules of oxygen in the air. An example of this is a city like Denver. Visitors often cite their difficulty to breath and the fact they tire more easily as things they do not like about visiting Denver.

The pressure in airplanes is not kept at sea-level pressures; it is closer to the air pressure present at the altitude of 8,000 feet. The plane, when everything is done correctly, has to raise inside pressure as the pressure outside begins to drop. This process is reversed on the other end when the plane starts its descent.

The loss of pressure on 9W 697 led to the popping tiny blood vessels in the noses and ears of passengers. There were even some eardrums popped probably. The human body can withstand only small changes in pressure before it starts feeling side-effects. Fluids inside our bodies, due to their structure, are more sensitive to changes in pressure. This is why the tiny blood vessels pop.  People can even experience something similar to this in elevators as they go up when their ears start popping. This happens due to a tube in the inner ear being blocked. This tube is better known as the Eustachian tube and it is used to rebalance pressure between the ear and the atmosphere. Chewing bubble gum or just simply swallowing a few times can help alleviate the tiny pain caused by this. So bleeding from the ears is fairly normal in situations like this when you take their sensitivity into consideration.

How Does Depressurization Occur?

A sudden depressurization in a plane usually means that the plane has taken damage, which caused a rupture in the airtight seal that is keeping the pressure under control. Fortunately, there are automatic systems set up in modern planes, especially the bigger ones, which combat this. That is why the air masks drop from the overhead compartments. Pilots use them in order to be able to lower the plane to or below 10,000 feet. At this altitude, all passengers should survive and function at a high level. But this drop has to happen immediately because now the biggest enemy of everyone on the plane is hypoxia.

The lack of oxygen, better known as hypoxia, is hard to recognize, but it quickly completely debilitates anyone who succumbs to it. According to the Federal Aviation Administration at altitudes of 18,000 feet, the ability to act accordingly is lost within the first 30 minutes while at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher this sets in about 12 minutes. This pretty soon causes unconsciousness. Commercial planes travel at altitudes of over 30,000 feet and at this point people only have about 30 seconds to act before going unconscious.

Due to the fact that it is hard to recognize, pilots, especially ones in the military, undergo extensive training in order to recognize the early onsets of hypoxia. If a pilot is unable to recognize it in due time the results can be devastating.

One of the worst cases of this was on flight 522 from Cyprus to Athens that happened in 2005. Due to the effects of hypoxia, even as the pilots were being told by engineers what is occurring and what needs to be done they were unable to recognize what the issue is due to lowered brain functionality that they experienced. As hypoxia started to set in, they were caught up on the need to fix the cooling system, and they did not acknowledge that the issue was the pressure in the plane, until it was too late. Subsequently, everyone on the plane fainted and the plane crashed into some hills outside Athens, killing everyone on board.

How to Survive Decompression?

Fortunately, decompression is survivable in most cases. It just depends on the ability of the flight crew to act accordingly. If you ever experience loss of cabin pressure during the flight just follow the instructions and put on the air mask. As the plane starts to descend at higher speeds the pressure evens out and the pilots start their descent to a nearby airport landing strip. Everyone gets to the ground safe and sound.

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