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Dear Dr. Sugar,
I’m traveling home to the East Coast for Thanksgiving, but I have a horrible cold and my sinuses are really stuffed up. I've heard that it can be dangerous to fly with a head cold, especially for the ears. Is that right — is it dangerous? Is there anything I can do to make the situation safer for my ears?
— Stuffed Up and Homesick
Since this holiday is the major travel week as well as the beginning of full blown cold season you might be interested to see what DrSugar has to say, so read more.
Flying with a cold can be a horrible and painful experience. Ear pain occurs when sinus congestion or Eustachian tube congestion blocks the ability of air pressure in the inner ear to equalize with cabin air pressure. Symptoms can range from mild pain to severe ear damage depending on the severity of the pressure change and the duration of the flight. For most people, the symptoms are limited to pain, discomfort, and frequent popping of the ears. However, it is possible to rupture the tympanic membrane (ear drum), which can require surgical repair. Other symptoms can include dizziness, hearing loss, and ringing of the ears. I realize this sounds scary, but these are extreme examples. Most problems can be avoided easily with the correct approach to flying with a cold.
My first piece of advice would be to avoid unnecessary flying while sick or congested, however this is often impossible during the holiday season. The key to avoiding problems is to relieve or minimize blockage of the Eustachian tubes. Pressure differences between your ear and the cabin pressure are most severe during takeoff and landing. It is important to clear your ears often during takeoff and landing to equalize this pressure. This can be accomplished by yawning or gently blowing out with your nose plugged and mouth closed. Decongestants can also help to minimize the sinus congestion that commonly leads to pain. Examples include pseudoephedrine or antihistamines and they should be taken at least 30 minutes before takeoff. There are also earplugs specifically designed to prevent ear pain while flying called EarPlanes. While these can be useful in severe cases, they are inconvenient because they need to be worn for the entire flight. If you’re still unsure about flying or are having second thoughts, it is good idea to talk to your doctor or postpone your flight.
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