June 1, 2016

OUCH! 5 tips for flying with blocked sinuses

I’ve just touched down in Auckland from Christchurch in my second week of nurturing a heavy cold. Aaghhh! It was so painful I thought my ears might burst and blood would gush down my neck on the descent! In fact the last time I flew with a cold 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.

So I did a bit of research and combined it with my own practical applications and here are my tips for helping relieve the pressure of sinus and ear pain on a plane.

Ear ache on plane


What causes the pain?

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 traveling with a cold/flu/sinus infection.

The cause is cabin pressure changing faster than our blocked/infected ear canal can equilibrise. (I looked it up, it’s a word!) A cold or infection creates a blockage in the eustachian tube. This tube runs from the back of the throat to behind the ear connecting the middle ear to the back of the nose.  It cleverly maintains equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. Or not, in our case…

When our sinuses are healthy and our ears tickle and pop in a plane or going up great heights, that is this tube equalising out the pressure. When we have a cold, it doesn’t work so well.

So what can you do about alleviating sinus and ear pain?

How to relieve sinus on plane

The magic maneuver!

Grab yourself some 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). Or take them an hour before the plane descends if flying long haul.

Take nose drops or a nasal spray in your hand luggage (in a plastic baggy if you’re flying internationally!) for use when the pain starts and clear out those pipes.

Swallow often. Suck on lollies, chew gum or drink water. Try and make yourself yawn.

At the height of the pain try blowing your nose. I did this today and my ears squeaked and that relieved some pressure. Of course if your nose is clear this won’t work however see the next point…

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 they pop and squeak. That thing that divers do. This was the genius action for me. I had been in agony with my finger squished deeply into my ear canal looking at the snow capped Southern Alps and then being too frightened to remove it as I thought the suction might pull my brain out. Then I did the Valsalva. Pop. Magic!

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


About Megan Singleton


Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel blog malarkey 17 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 monthly newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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