As much as air travel has become an integral (and convenient!) part of modern life, there’s one aspect that’s anything but pleasant: ear and sinus problems while flying. For many passengers, the changes in cabin pressure, altitude, and air quality can lead to discomfort and even cause temporary hearing loss or precipitate a sinus infection.
At Memorial Village Sinus and Hearing in Houston, Texas, ENT specialist Dr. Conrad McCutcheon and licensed audiologist Dr. Marty Lippeatt are no strangers to hearing about cases where flying exacerbates pre-existing conditions or causes new problems related to hearing and sinus health.
But what can you do about it? In this blog, we explore the ways flying affects these delicate systems and offer tips to mitigate potential problems.
Cabin pressure changes and hearing
With air travel comes rapid changes in pressure. As the aircraft ascends or descends, the pressure in the cabin fluctuates, and while this is normal, it can create imbalances in the air pressure within your middle ear.
Your middle ear is connected to the back of your nose by the eustachian tube, which is responsible for equalizing the pressure on either side of your eardrums. However, during takeoff and landing, your eustachian tube may struggle to adjust swiftly, leading to symptoms such as:
A common complaint among flyers, ear pain or pressure can be due to unequal pressure between your middle ear and the cabin. Chewing (either food or gum), swallowing, or yawning can help open the eustachian tube and alleviate discomfort.
Temporary hearing loss
The imbalances in pressure may also cause temporary hearing loss. Some flyers report that their ears feel clogged. Hearing usually returns to normal once the pressure stabilizes, but if hearing loss persists, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
Air quality and sinus irritation or infections
Airplane cabins are known for their dry air, which can lead to dehydration and irritation of your nasal passages and sinuses. The low humidity levels can cause your mucus membranes to dry out, making it difficult for your sinuses to drain properly. Consequently, you may experience:
Dry nasal passages can lead to congestion, making it uncomfortable for those with pre-existing sinus conditions, like sinusitis or allergies.
The combination of dry air and pressure changes may trigger sinus headaches, causing discomfort throughout the flight.
Sinus squeeze, also known as barosinusitis or aerosinusitis, refers to irritated sinuses while flying. As a result of the uneven air pressure, you may notice sinus pain, sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose.
The confined space and recirculated air in the cabin can help the spread of airborne pathogens, increasing the risk of infection. Moreover, the dry air in the cabin can cause dehydration of the nasal passages, weakening your body's defense against germs. Changes in air pressure during take-off and landing can block the Eustachian tubes, leading to inflammation and infection as well.
Precautions and remedies while flying
To minimize the impact of flying on your hearing and sinuses, keep the following tips in mind:
Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to combat the effects of dry cabin air. You can also keep your nasal passages hydrated and moist by using saline sprays such as Arm and Hammer Simply Saline or Arm and Hammer Simply Saline Extra Strength; these reduce irritation and congestion by keeping your nasal passages moist. Extra strength saline may provide an additional decongesting effect as well.
Avoid using irritants like alcohol and tobacco before and during your flight, as they can further exacerbate sinus issues.
Yawning and swallowing
Frequent yawning and swallowing during takeoff and landing can help equalize pressure in your ears. Keep a pack of gum in your carry-on bag so you’ll always have a piece within reach.
Valsalva maneuver during takeoff and landing can also equalize pressure in your ears. Pinch your nostrils and keep your mouth shut. Then gently blow as if blowing your nose. Do this several times especially during descent.
Try pressure regulating earplugs
These earplugs gradually equalize the pressure against your eardrum during ascents and descents.
Get ready for your flight
Flying can indeed affect your hearing and irritate your sinuses, particularly due to the changes in cabin pressure and the dry air in airplane cabins. While most of the associated issues are temporary, individuals with chronic ear or sinus conditions should take extra precautions and consult with our team before traveling.
By understanding these effects and following the recommended precautions, you can have a more comfortable and pleasant flying experience while safeguarding your hearing and sinus health.
If you’re planning a flight soon and you’re concerned about how your underlying sinus issues may impact your comfort on the flight, contact Memorial Village Sinus and Hearing by calling 281-822-3777. You can also request an appointment online.