If you plan to fly with a stuffy nose from a sinus infection, allergies or a cold, you may want to rethink your plans. As cabin pressure changes during your flight’s ascent and descent, you may find yourself in severe pain or experience other complications. If you can’t postpone your trip, make sure to board the plane armed with the knowledge and tools to make your flight as painless as possible.
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Middle Ear Issues
The eustachian tube connects your middle ear to your throat. Its primary job is to regulate the airflow into and out of your middle ear to maintain an air pressure equal to that of the air around you. When a plane begins its ascent or descent, the cabin pressure quickly changes and the eustachian tube kicks into gear to adjust the pressure inside your ear. If anything gets in the way of the airflow, such as blockage from a stuffy nose, you may feel tremendous pressure or pain. While the condition normally rectifies itself as soon as cabin pressure returns to normal, it is not unusual to experience temporary vertigo, tinnitus or hearing loss that can last for up to six weeks. In severe cases, the eardrum may rupture, causing bleeding and pain.
Sinuses are pockets filled with air that are located around your nose and in some of the facial bones. As is the case with your middle ear, when a stuffy nose blocks the airflow into the sinus cavity and it is unable to equalize the air pressure upon ascent or descent of the plane, you can experience severe pain or pressure in your forehead, around your nose or under your eyes. In severe cases, you may also experience toothaches or nosebleeds.
If you must fly with a stuffy nose, arm yourself with a good decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine hydrochloride, if you’re suffering from a cold, or antihistamines if allergies are the issue. Travelers with allergies should take their medication roughly 30 minutes before the flight takes off, while those with a cold or sinus infection should take a decongestant or nasal spray roughly one hour before the flight is due to land. In any case, carry some pain reliever to help relieve any ear or sinus pain you may feel.
Tips and Tricks
Many flight attendants swear to the effectiveness of dabbing a bit of topical mentholated cream below your nose before descent to keep the nasal passages as clear as possible. If you do feel pressure starting in your ears, use one hand to close your nostrils, take in a large mouthful of air and then close your mouth and try to force the air into the back of your nose. When flying with babies, offer them a pacifier or give them a bottle during descent, as the sucking movement may help their ears to pop. You may also want to invest in a set of special disposable earplugs designed to protect your eardrums by regulating air pressure.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Barotrauma
- The New York Times: Travel Q&A
- Post-Gazette.com: Some Cold Prescriptions When You're Flying
- Boone Regional Ear, Nose and Throat Associates: Ears, Altitude and Airplane Travel
- Fox News: Sneaky Causes of Sinus Trouble
- Dr. Park: What You Can Do About Your Stuffy Nose