The holiday season is upon us, and for many people, that means visits to family and other loved ones or relaxing vacations to warmer climes. To get to those locations, lots of people are turning to air travel — convenient, for sure, but also a source of ear and sinus problems for many.
At ENT Specialists, our team helps women and men in Salt Lake City, Murray, Draper, Tooele, and West Jordan, Utah, manage ear and sinus troubles related to flying, helping patients focus on the fun of the adventure instead of painful symptoms. Here, learn what you can do to prevent these symptoms and manage them when they occur.
How flying affects your ears and sinuses
If you’re prone to sinus infections and sinus headaches or if you’ve ever had a cold or sinus infection during a previous flight, you may know all too well the painful symptoms that can occur. These symptoms happen mainly because of the change in pressure inside an airplane cabin, combined with the drier air flowing from the air vents.
Changes in pressure are especially noticeable during takeoff and landing, when the plane experiences significant changes in altitude in a brief period of time.
When you’re flying, the air pressure inside your middle ear needs to change to match the pressure in the cabin. These changes are facilitated by the Eustachian tubes that connect your ears and sinuses. Most of us have experienced some mild sensations of pressure or fullness in our ears during takeoff and landing, with our ears “clearing” when pressure equalizes.
If a cold, sinus infection, or allergy blocks the Eustachian tubes, it’s a lot harder for pressures to balance out, leading to pain and other symptoms, like:
- Facial or ear pressure
- Tinnitus (“ringing” or “buzzing” noises)
In extreme cases, the pressure builds up and ruptures the eardrum, causing hearing loss and extreme pain. In fact, ear symptoms are so common during flight, they’ve acquired a nickname: “airplane ear” (sometimes called ear barotrauma or aerotitis media).
Because the air in a plane is completely self-contained and filtered during flight, it’s a lot drier than the air we encounter in most outdoor environments — even in Utah, where the air tends to be drier than in some other parts of the country.
When we breathe, moisture in the air helps maintain the mucus membranes in our throat and sinuses. Extra-dry air saps the membranes of natural moisture, sometimes causing sinus pain or headaches, especially if you already have a cold, infection, or active allergy symptoms.
Handling flight-related issues
One of the best ways to avoid pain and other flight-related ear and sinus symptoms is to avoid flying when you have an active cold or sinus infections. Avoiding flights during allergy season can also help.
Unfortunately, completely avoiding travel during these times isn’t always possible. In those instances, these steps can help.
Yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum
Most of us who’ve experienced uncomfortable changes in ear pressure know these simple tips that can provide a lot of relief. Yawning, swallowing, and chewing gum all help balance pressure inside the ear, providing some symptom relief.
Try some earplugs
Wearing earplugs isn’t just for sound mitigation. These tiny devices can help slow the change in air pressure common during takeoff and landing.
Take a decongestant
If you have a cold or sinus issue, you can also try taking a decongestant about a half hour before takeoff. Only use decongestants if your doctor says they’re safe for you to use, especially if you take other medicines or supplements or have pre-existing medical conditions.
Try the valsalva maneuver
The valsalva maneuver can also be used to equalize differences in pressure. You perform this maneuver by holding your nose and closing your mouth, then attempting to exhale forcefully. With your mouth and nose closed off, the exhaled air helps clear the ears and sinuses.
While this maneuver is generally safe, it’s not recommended for people with certain retina conditions or intraocular lenses. It might not be a good choice for people with some types of cardiovascular diseases, either. Before your flight date, ask your doctor if it’s OK for you to use this maneuver.
Ask about ear tubes
If you’re a frequent flyer plagued by ear or sinus pain, having ear tubes implanted can help equalize pressure and prevent problems while flying.
Keep your ears and sinuses healthy this holiday season
If you’re prone to ear or sinus issues, scheduling a visit with our team before your trip can help you learn more ways to manage your specific issues. And if you develop symptoms once you’re home, we can help, too.
To learn more, book an appointment online or over the phone with the team at ENT Specialists today.