Dealing with a cold is challenging enough at home. But in the air? The changes in altitude and air pressure make those sniffles, coughs and sinus pressure feel much worse. In some cases, it can be downright dangerous, especially for little eardrums. From over-the-counter medications to special earplugs to curb the pain, these tried and true remedies can help ease your pain when flying with a cold is your only choice.
How to Survive Flying with a Cold
These days, any time you are out in public with a runny nose or cough, someone is likely to give you a sideways glance. And you are likely to respond, “It’s just a cold. It’s not Covid.”
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a whole section on its website dedicated to questions about traveling in a time of the coronavirus. The bottom line: if you’re sick, don’t travel. That is particularly true if you have an infectious disease such as Covid.
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But the reality is that sometimes we all have to travel even with a cold. So, if you’re sure it isn’t Covid and you decide to fly, these tips and advice are aimed at helping you get through the flight with the least amount of discomfort. And, we hope, you’ll wear a mask and do everything you can to keep from coughing and sneezing on your fellow passengers and the flight attendants.
Read More: What to do if you get sick at Disney
Do I Have to Travel?
This always the first question I ask myself.
The cabin pressure changes caused by air travel are uncomfortable, yes. And I certainly didn’t want to spread germs to any other passengers stuck near me in the airplane cabin for hours.
However, plans can’t always be put on hold and airline tickets are expensive. The last time I had to fly with a head cold, my plane ticket was nonrefundable. If you don’t have travel insurance, cost is definitely a consideration.
In this particular case, I had what was most likely a common cold with sore throat. My symptoms were annoying, but not critical. And it was before we ever heard the word “coronavirus” so I wasn’t worried about that!
If I had a severe cold, fever, difficulty breathing, ear infection or serious sinus infection, I would definitely re-assess the need to fly, even if my plane ticket is nonrefundable.
According to health experts, the pressure in your sinuses and middle ear should be at the same pressure as the outside air. When you’re in an airplane and it takes off or starts to land, the external cabin air pressure changes more rapidly than your internal air pressure. That what causes the ear pain.
If you aren’t sure whether you should be flying with a cold, get medical advice to determine your best options based on your own cold symptoms.
Tips for Flying with a Head Cold
When your mucus membranes are inflamed from a head cold, the cabin pressure can be even harder to deal with.
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Since I really needed to get on that airplane, I did some crowdsourcing and research to see what I could learn about how to keep my nasal passages and ears clear for the flights. What I learned was also confirmed by a visit to our local pharmacist when I went to stock up on cold medicines.
Note: I’m not a doctor so I definitely recommend checking with whatever medical professional you trust) before you try any of these tips.
What Worked for Me
- I took a decongestant at least an hour before the flight. It helped keep my head from feeling like it was going to explode. The one I used was a 12-hour decongestant, so I didn’t have to re-take it during the flight. The decongestant brand most recommended is Sudafed.
- An antihistamine also helped dry up my still-runny nose. And I made sure to have plenty of tissues on-hand – as well as a plastic baggie for the used tissues since airplane seats don’t have handy garbage receptacles and I didn’t want to leave them lying around or tucked into the backseat pocket, one of the germiest places on a plane.
- Another option is to try a nasal spray (such as Afrin) to shrink the nasal passages. When those are swollen, the eustachian tubes can become clogged, which makes it harder for your ears to pop and equalize pressure between your inner ear and the cabin air. In a worst case scenario, you could end up with ears plugged for days, temporary hearing loss, or even a ruptured eardrum.
- Chewing gum, sucking lozenges or drinking water or other liquids can help in many cases. Before and during the trip, I drank plenty of fluids, Vitamin C and rested as best as I could. Flying may be stressful and uncomfortable in some ways, but it does force you to rest, at least physically. I made sure I had a refillable water bottle so I could fill up after passing through security. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the flight attendants to bring me water – or have an uncovered glass of water on my tray with a squirmy 5-year-old in the seat next to me.
The Must-Have Product to Avoid Ear Pain
Per a friend’s suggestion, I invested in a pair of Ear Planes. That’s an earplug made specifically for people flying with sensitive ears, or who have a cold, sinus problems or allergies. I do think these made the biggest difference in my case. It was a relief to not feel the pressure in my head at all or have to constantly try to get my ears to pop to relieve it.
I used the Ear Planes during both takeoffs and landings. I took them out in between since they did get uncomfortable after a while. And while it was definitely not the best way to travel with a preschooler (since they do also act as noise suppression ear plugs), I felt that the pressure and pain-free flights were definitely worth it.
There’s a pediatric version for kids – something I was glad not to have to use this time around!
Travel Tips for Flying with a Sick Child
TravelingMom Editor Cindy Richards likes to tell the story of being on a flight with a baby who was crying in agony. After a few minutes, someone called out, “Give that baby a bottle!” The distraught mom answered, “She won’t take a bottle.” At that, another passenger yelled, “Then give her a boob. That baby is in pain!”
And flying can be a painful experience for little ears. Here’s what medical experts recommend:
- See your pediatrician before taking a sick child on an airplane.
- Bring along age-appropriate items to help equalize pressure in your child’s ears and sinuses. That could mean a bottle, lollipops, gum or, in some cases, a cover-up for mom so she can give the baby a boob.
- Give the kids lots of water to keep them hydrated, which is always a challenge in the dry cabin air.
- Know where the nearest hospital is at your destination. This is always good advice, You’ll want to know where the hospital is in case someone breaks an arm during your family vacation.
Read More: 15 Tips for Flying with a Baby
Thankfully I felt better by the time I headed home, so did not need to use the ear plugs after takeoff. Within a couple of days after we got home, I was back to my usual self.
These are just general tips – again, please make sure that you talk to your doctor or another trusted medical professional before you fly with any kind of cold, allergy, or sinus condition. Or if you’re under the weather in any way at all, since it can be very dangerous to fly if your condition is serious enough.
And above all else, try to make sure to eat and drink enough healthy foods and get lots of rest so that you can build your immune system and avoid getting sick in the first place!