During a flight, the air pressure in the sinuses must equalise with the pressure inside the cabin, which fluctuates during take-off and descent. Usually, when you’re up in the air you might yawn, swallow or suck on a hard candy to equalise (or ‘pop’) the air pressure in your ears. This equalisation occurs in the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and maintains equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum.
Influenza, head colds and sinus infections can cause blockages in the Eustachian tube, restricting the flow of air and preventing equalisation. This commonly causes pain, and can even lead to vertigo, tinnitus or temporary hearing loss. In extreme circumstances, rupture of the eardrum may occur leading to lasting damage.
For this reason, most doctors would agree that it’s wise to avoid air travel when you’re sick to prevent pain and possible complications.
If travel is unavoidable, here are our eight tips to ease your journey, and your ears!
- Take a long-lasting decongestant to help clear your ears, nose and throat passages.
- Nose drops, nasal sprays or nasal inhalers can also be used to treat congestion. Use them sparingly though, or you might end up feeling more congested than you were originally. Do not use them in conjunction with oral decongestants.
- Wear pressure-relieving earplugs such as EarPlanes, which you can purchase at most pharmacies. EarPlanes help alleviate pain by sealing off the inner ear and slowing down the rate of pressure change in the ear during take-off and landing. Bonus: they also act as effective noise suppressors, which is always good on a noisy flight!
- Try sucking on boiled candy – we’ve heard that eucalyptus drops are particularly effective. Alternatively, chew gum, or swallow frequently. Yawning also helps.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to help control pain and discomfort.
- Think twice before using the Valsalva manoeuvre (where you close your mouth, pinch your nose shut and try to exhale forcibly). This method can potentially help with pressure equalisation, but many doctors warn it may forcibly push infected material into the middle ear, resulting in a nasty ear infection.
- If pain becomes unbearable, let a flight attendant know. They may have a solution or may be able to offer advice.
- Drink plenty of water. It’s important to stay hydrated on a plane, especially when you’re sick. It also might help with decongestion.