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OUCH! 6 tips to avoid ear pain when flying

Have you got a flight coming up and you have a cold and are nervous about flying with blocked sinuses for the ear pain during the flight? Here are five airplane ear pain remedies to help you through it.

Sore ears from flying

I recently touched down in Auckland from Christchurch in the second week of nurturing a heavy cold: blocked nose, head aches, the works.

Aaghhh! The excruciating ear pain when landing was so bad I thought my ear drums might burst and blood would gush down my neck upon landing!

In fact the last time I flew with blocked sinuses they very nearly did, as my doctor told me a few days later when she stuck her flashlight into my ear and saw blood spots on my ear drum. It can happen!

So I did a bit of research, and combined it with my own practical applications, and here are five tips you could try to avoid ear pain during a flight and help relieve the pressure of sinuses on the ears brought on by a cold.

What causes ear pain when flying?

Firstly we need to know what’s going on so we can attempt to resolve the problem. For the sake of this post I’m assuming that you don’t have any ongoing medical issues, and you’re flying with a cold, flu or sinus infection.

Fingers in ears when flying
Don’t put up with ear pain when flying!

The cause of your ear pain when the plane ascends and descends is brought on from the cabin pressure changing faster than our blocked/infected ear canal can equilibrise. (I looked it up, it’s a word!)

On a normal, healthy day when we don’t have blocked sinuses, we normally have spaces in our facial bones which are filled with air. Little air pockets, if you will. But when we get a cold or a sinus infection it creates a blockage in the eustachian tube – the tube that runs from the back of the throat to behind the ear connecting the middle ear to the back of the nose. 

On a happy, clear-nose day, this tube cleverly maintains equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. On an unhappy day, in the case of a cold, it can’t manage pressure changes very well…

When our sinuses are healthy, you might notice your ears tickle and pop in a plane soon after it takes off, or when go up great heights like in a high speed elevator: that is this tube equalising out the pressure. When we have a cold, it doesn’t work so well, hence the ear pain caused when the pressure builds up.

Ear pain on a plane is real, painful and can even cause damage to ear drums.

6 things you can you do to alleviate sinus and ear pain on a plane

Grab yourself some nasal decongestants and get them down you to help clear your sinuses about an hour before flying. Something like Sudafed or Codral which dry up your sinuses (sadly without the kick these days that pseudoephedrine had, now that this is a banned substance!).

Take them again an hour before the plane descends if you’re flying long haul. *Remember to check the packaging to make sure you can take them within a certain timeframe. And of course, make sure you don’t have other health issues which would mean you shouldn’t take decongestants. Check with your doctor before you take them, especially if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, are pregnant. (Of course you would do that, I know!)

Allergy medication might also be all you need to use too if you don’t have an infection. I keep the anti histamine Claritin in my toilet bag for general sinus stuffiness that I occasionally get.

2 Don’t sleep during take off or landing. The reason for this is so you can do the following steps.

Child asleep on plane
If your child has a cold you might need to wake them up before descent to help them swallow, chew, yawn, drink etc to alleviate ear pain

Take nose drops or a nasal spray in your hand luggage (in a plastic baggy to get through screening!) for use when the pain starts, blow your nose first then snort your drops and clear out those pipes.

Swallow often. Suck on hard candy, chew gum or drink water. Try and make yourself yawn. This is a great tip for small children and babies too, give them a drink or nurse them to help them naturally swallow and equalise their ears.

This tip is good to use even you do not have a sinus infection, as it helps the earways catch up with equalising while you ascend.

At the height of the pain try blowing your nose. I did this on my recent flight when my sinuses were blocked and my ears squeaked which relieved some pressure. Of course if your nose is clear and it’s just the sinuses that are blocked, this won’t work – however see the next point…

How to relieve sinus on plane
The magic valsalva maneuver!

Do the Valsalva maneuver. What?! That is the fancy name for the act of pinching your nostrils closed then gently blowing into your nose until your ears pop and squeak. That thing that divers do to equalise ear pressure.

This was the genius action for me that worked a treat. I had been in agony with my finger squished deeply into my ear canal looking at the snow capped Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island, and then being too frightened to remove it as I thought the suction I had now created might pull my brain out. Then I did the Valsalva. Pop. Magic!

Pack ear plugs

Something you might like to buy if you suffer from ear pain more regularly is a little silicon earplug called Ear Plane. They are filtered ear plus that help the ears to equalise. This is what pilots use and others who fly frequently as they slow down the rate of the pressure change to allow the ear drum to catch up.

Look for the ones that are spiralled. You can get them at your pharmacy or drug store. You’ll still need to swallow/yawn/chew.

The Mayo Clinic has a whole of info about what happens to the ear when you fly, plus some helpful tips for flying with small children with ear pain.

Hope that helps! Please add your tips in the comments 🙂Save

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!