Should you fly with a sinus or ear infection?
The short answer; No. If you can avoid flying with an ear infection or sinus infection, do. There are big risks that come with taking that chance, some potentially causing permanent damage. It’s a dilemma that most people will face at some point in their lifetime, flight crew more so! Below we’ll dive into the reasons why flying can lead to sinus problems, give you more of an understanding of what risk you’re actually taking by jumping onboard a jet with an infection, and touch on the best way to alleviate the pain if you do have to fly.
What is an ear infection
In an ear infection, narrow tubes that run from the middle ear to high in the back of the throat (eustachian tube) can become swollen and blocked. This can lead to mucus build-up in the middle ear. This mucus can become infected and cause ear infection symptoms.
Common signs and symptoms include:
- Ear pain – especially when lying down
- Drainage of fluid from the ear
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble hearing
What’s a sinus infection?
Your sinuses are the air-filled pockets in your skull surrounding your nasal cavities. Sinuses are responsible for draining mucus out of your nasal passages. A sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, occurs when fluid builds up in the tissues in your sinus cavities, causing inflammation. A sinus infection tends to follow from having a cold. Sinus infections are most often caused by a viral infection, but they can also be caused by a bacterial infection. They are more common in people with allergies or asthma.
Common sinus infection symptoms include:
- Sinus pain: Swelling and tenderness around your cheeks, eyes or forehead
- Pressure: You may feel pressure in your face and head.
- Congestion: You may have a stuffy nose and difficulty breathing through your nose.
- Runny nose: You may have a runny nose that produces clear, green or yellow mucus.
- Ear pain: You may have pain in your ears, especially when you swallow or yawn.
- High temperature: You may have a high temperature, especially if the infection is bacterial.
Risks of flying with Sinus or ear infection?
Your eustachian tube connects your middle ear to your nasal and sinus cavities. During flight, your eustachian tube is responsible for equalising the air between these areas. If you have either an ear infection or sinus issues, the eustachian tube will have trouble equalising or keeping up with the change in cabin pressure, particularly during ascents and descents. This can not only cause pressure and pain in your ears & sinuses, it can lead to ear barotrauma
Ear barotrauma & perforated eardrum
Ear barotrauma, otherwise known as airplane ear, are terms for ear discomfort that can occur during flight. This condition often happens when the air pressure changes as the plane ascends and descends. An ear infection can intensify these symptoms.
If the eustachian tube simply cannot keep up with the changing pressure demands due to is being so inflamed, in extreme events your eardrum can burst. This is known as an eardrum perforation. It’s a very unpleasant experience by all accounts. Whilst a small perforation can heal itself, a larger perforation may need surgery to repair it and can lead to permanent hearing damage,
Tips for flying with ear or sinus issues
Whilst the best option it to not fly at all with sinus pain;, you may find yourself in a situation where you have no choice. So what are some good ways to prevent the cabin pressure causing sinus pain or damage to your middle ear? Hopefully the following tips help;
- Hydrate – The dry air in the airplane cabins can make things worse. Drink plenty of fluids.
- Use decongestants – They can provide temporary relief, available as pills and nasal sprays (topical decongestants). They work by shrinking the lining of your swollen nasal passages, allowing drainage in your sinuses and relieaving nasal congestion. You can take the decongestant 30 minutes before your flight in an effort to relieve pressure and pain.
- Chew gum, yawn or drink water – Your eustachian tubes are closed at baseline and open when you yawn, chew, or swallow. Chewing gum during ascent and descent can keep the eustachian tube open and allow the pressure to equalize between the ,middle ear and the airplane cabin atmosphere, temporarily relieving pressure and pain from sinus or ear infections.
- Do the Valsalva manoeuvre; The Valsalva manoeuvre is a breathing technique where you blow air through the eustachian tube to relieve severe sinus pressure.
Here are the steps for doing the Valsalva manoeuvre:
- Pinch your nose close.
- Close your mouth.
- Gently blow your nose for 10–15 seconds.
- Repeat steps as necessary.
It’s also always worth letting the flight attendants know if you’re suffering from sinus pain during the flight. On long flights, they’ll often have saline spray, nasal decongestant spray or other products to help severe congestion.
Preventing ear & sinus infections
You can also take preventative measures much further ahead of time for your next trip. A long-term solution would be keeping your immune system in the best shape possible. Good sleep, regular exercise, a good, balanced nutritional diet and plenty of vitamin C should help you mitigate the threat of a cold or infection in the first place and keep your sinus health level high.
If despite this, you continue to get sinus pain or experience sinus issues whilst flying, there may be an underlying condition or you may be suffering from chronic sinusitis. It may be worth discussing options such as balloon sinuplasty with your doctor.
If you’re suffering from an ear infection or sinus infection, it’s a good idea to avoid flying until the symptoms have settled down. Flying can increase sinus pain and cause damage to your eardrum.
If you have no choice but to fly, use some of the tips & tricks above to try and help alleviate or minimise sinus pain. It should be noted that if you do have an ear or sinus infection, you should see a doctor immediately and get professional advice.