Aeroplanes and ears have a notoriously rocky relationship. It’s reported that 1 in 3 aircraft passengers suffers ear pain, or temporary hearing loss upon take off or landing.
When you travel with a bad cold, sinus or ear infection (especially a middle ear infection), you place yourself at risk of experiencing an agony so intense it’ll make you involuntarily grip the arm of the passenger next to you while cursing through clenched teeth and swearing you’ll never fly sick again.
What causes intense ear pain on planes, you ask?
Quick changes in air pressure make the air pocket in your middle ear expand during take off and contract during descent. This stretches the eardrum. Air needs to flow through the Eustachian tube – the teeny tiny opening that connects the middle ear and nose, in order to equalise the pressure.
When you’re especially congested, the air can’t properly pass through the Eustachian tube, so the air pressure in the middle ear becomes different than the pressure on the outside of the ear drum. That’s when you experience ‘Barotrauma’. The associated swelling can cause excruciating pain, bleeding or, at worse, a perforated eardrum.
What else can go wrong?
Complications of barotrauma can last weeks after you land. You might experience acute ear infection accompanied by agonising pain, vertigo (you could feel unbalanced for days) and varying degrees of temporary or permanent deafness or tinnitus.
Should you consider delaying your flight?
If you have an ear or respiratory infection or allergies that cause congestion, delaying your flight, or at the very least seeing your doctor or audiologist for inspection and medication, could be a good idea. Complications of barotrauma can render you incapacitated for over a week, and the potential damage to your ears just isn’t worth it.
Can’t delay your flight?
Here are 4 ways to reduce the pain if you really must board that plane:
- If possible, start taking Sudafed or similar at least 24 hours before your flight. Take it every 6 hours and continue for 24 hours after you’ve landed. This will shrink the membranes in the sinus and ear.
- Before you board the plane, use a decongestant spray – such as Fess, as directed. This will help open the eustachian tube. Some doctors recommend using the spray every 5 minutes for 15 minutes, about 45 minutes prior to arrival.
- During the flight, yawn, chew gum and swallow to help keep the Eustachian tube open. You can also try to get your hands on some decongestant lozenges.
- Stay hydrated, but avoid alcohol or caffeine as these substances will just dry your nasal system out, and it needs to be kept moist.