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How to Deal with Being Sick while Flying

How to deal with being sick on a plane
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Having just done this a few days ago, I can say without a doubt that flying while sick is a miserable experience. The slightest of head colds can lead to pure agony. While there is no silver bullet, here are some tips to mitigate the discomfort.

Why is it difficult to fly while sick?

For the purposes of this article, we are referring to head-cold-sick, not vomiting-your-guts-out-sick or diarrhea-sick. The problem with flying when you have a head cold is that an extremely uncomfortable amount of pressure can build up in your sinuses and Eustachian tube (part of the middle ear that drains mucous and helps equalize pressure).

Most of the time, this leads to discomfort and sometimes severe pain. Temporary loss or reduction of hearing is also typical. In extreme cases, the ear drum can actually rupture.

Obviously, the best way to avoid this is to not fly when you have a head cold. But if you must get on a plane, take these tips to heart.

Use a saline nasal spray

There are all sorts of different cold remedies floating around, but one of the most tried and true is the use of a saline nose spray. You know when your head feels like an anvil and all of that congestion just doesn’t want to get moving? A saline nose spray will help moisten the nasal passage and irrigate your sinuses, leading to more productive nose-blowing.

Getting mucous out of your head is one of the best ways to relieve the painful pressure. Another benefit to saline nose sprays is that they do not contain medication and you can use them as often as needed.

Take a decongestant

Most decongestants have pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine as active ingredients. These over-the-counter drugs work by reducing inflammation and mucous creation in the sinuses. They won’t provide absolute relief but they can definitely help before and during a flight. As with any medication, make sure to read all the directions and any warnings on the box.

Aromatherapy

olbas inhalerFor a quick shot of relief, rub some Vicks VapoRub underneath your nostrils or pick up an Olbas Inhaler. Eucalyptus is the dominant ingredient here and it can temporarily open up clogged nasal passages.

Shea butter

Dabbing a bit of shea butter on the inside of your nostrils will help lubricate your nasal passage and provide a layer of protection against the dry air. Many people don’t realize that the air on an airplane at altitude is actually several times drier than the air in a desert.

Clearing the Eustachian tubes

Yawning or swallowing may help relieve pressure, but the most effective way to clear your Eustachian tubes is something called the Valsalva maneuver. The Valsa-what? The Valsalva maneuver. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and there is a good chance you already do it.

Simply pinch your nostrils shut, close your mouth, and exhale through your nose. Do this is as often as needed. It must be said, however, that if you’re really clogged up, there isn’t any jaw wiggling or exhalation trick that’s going to clear you up, especially during the ascent and descent of the flight. Remember not to exhale forcefully when using this technique. You could risk blowing your ear drum.

EarPlanes to the rescue!

EarPlanes are specialized ear plugs that are worn throughout the flight. The main reason your ears get clogged during the ascent and descent of a flight is because the change in pressure is too abrupt. EarPlanes slow down the change in pressure. If you are congested, EarPlanes may be the single biggest difference maker. If your Eustachian tubes are completely clogged, however, EarPlanes may not be able to provide any relief.

Can you burst an eardrum if you fly with a head cold?

Many travelers worry about the risk of bursting an ear drum if they travel with severe sinus congestion. The good news is that the risk is actually quite low in the pressurized cabin of an airplane. You would need to be exceptionally clogged up for it to happen. Air travelers typically struggle with the descent more than anything. As painful as it may be, just remind yourself that it won’t last forever, and you will soon be on the ground!

Finally, it’s not unheard of for ears not to “pop” (or become unclogged) for several days after air travel if you travel with sinus congestion. Don’t worry, you haven’t permanently lost your hearing! Everything will get back to normal – it just might take a few days.

Do you have any specific tips for flying with a head cold? Have you tried any of the above suggestions before? Let us know in the comments below.

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{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Nomadic Samuel November 13, 2011, 4:50 pm

    As always, great tips Phil! If there is a crying baby or sick somebody chances are they’re sitting next to me 😛

    • phil November 14, 2011, 1:19 am

      I’m usually the same way, but on this most recent flight I was the sick one!! I’ll have to say, I would rather be surrounded by screaming, vomiting babies rather than feel like my ear drum is approaching explosion 😉

  • wandering educators November 15, 2011, 9:48 am

    great tips! i also try to take plenty of zinc.

    • phil November 15, 2011, 12:55 pm

      Really? I have never been sure of whether to take zinc seriously as a cold remedy, but it’s good to know it works for you. Thanks for the comment!

  • Aussie on the Road November 16, 2011, 11:03 pm

    I’ve been lucky in all of my air travels thus far and managed to avoid being sick going into them. Touch wood it continues haha.

    But if it doesn’t, I’ll know where to go 😉

    • phil November 27, 2011, 11:02 am

      Hey Chris,
      Yes, definitely knock on wood! You are lucky! I hope the streak continues for you 🙂

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