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DrSugar Answers: Flying With a Cold?

DrSugar is in the house and answering your questions.

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


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.

If you have a question for DrSugar, send me a private message here and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

Join The Conversation
agmon agmon 8 years
for ear pain while traveling i would suggest using the eardoc
soapbox soapbox 8 years
Traveling sick is miserable! And most the time, your cold symptoms get worse from it! I always bring my own food if I'm sick and take a couple bottles of Afrin and Vicks along for the ride. Eating plane food makes me feel sick anyway (all that sodium!) so eating it when I'm already sick is just asking for trouble. Oh and I yawn and gulp down water during takes offs and landings to cope with the ear popping.
elme1009 elme1009 8 years
I flew from the Midwest to South Africa last year with the worst cold of my life. I was scouring the internet for solutions before taking the trip because I was so sick and afraid of having problems. In total, I made 4 ascents and 4 decents on the trip there. I had several moments of excruciating pain. I second the advice to use Afrin as much as needed. Don't worry about the side effects. It's an emergency. Also, dope up on the Sudafed and antihistamine. It will help minimize the problems you're having. And try to sleep. Take the nighttime meds. That way you won't feel it as much. And don't forget Kleenex!! Take as many as possible. I ran out of Kleenex and meds by the last leg of the trip, and that's when I wanted them the most, because I finally having fun!
KayEff KayEff 8 years
I always get sick after taking planes. Some studies have shown that airborne diseases can travel up to seven rows forwards and backwards in planes. It's unrealistic to expect sick people to stay home though...
melizzle melizzle 8 years
I've done a transatlantic flight with a cold... my head felt like it was going to explode! Drink lots and lots of water, take sleeping pills and hope for the best.
tlsgirl tlsgirl 8 years
I flew to Paris once while getting over a sinus infection, and wearing EarPlanes for a 9-hour flight is so not fun! They were fine for about the first 2 hours, and they definitely helped, but after a while it was super uncomfortable.
death-by-chocolat death-by-chocolat 8 years
I second that, superfox! I had to fly last December with bronchitis and I'd had a double ear infection for WEEKS and could barely hear. I was prepared to be crying during the flight, but it turned out to be no problem, probably because I was loaded with sudafed and ibuprofen, had been drinking water nonstop, and kept blowing my nose while plugging it (like the Dr. suggested).
superfoxml superfoxml 8 years
Oh man I was super sick with bronchitis in October and HAD to fly...I used Afrin, the Earplanes fit mentioned, Mucinex, and Phenylephrine to get through the flights..and I still had pain. I suggest using a strong decongestant an hr before takeoff, and the Afrin 15 minutes before. Drink lots of decaffeinated fluids and bring Emergen-C vitamin packets with you.
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