Risks, tips and precautions if you fly with an ear infection

Last update on Aug, 30, 2023

How does air travel affect your ears?

Planning to take a flight soon? Air travel involves changes in pressure that occur during take-off and landing, often causing discomfort in the ears. Though common, if you're flying with an ear infection, the thought of "take-off" may have you second-guessing your trip.

Let's explore how air travel affects the ears and discuss ways to help minimize discomfort and reduce the risks of flying with an ear infection.

Ear pressure and other effects of flying on ears

A family at the airport

Flying can be an exciting experience but can also bring unpleasant sensations. One of the most common effects of flying is the pressure changes inside your ears that often trigger a sensation of pressure or popping.

Why do your ears pop in an airplane?

As the plane ascends or descends, the fluctuations in cabin pressure put additional stress on your Eustachian tube.  This is the small tube in your throat behind your nose that connects to the air-filled space behind your eardrums. The changes in air pressure can create a feeling of fullness and a popping or cracking sounds.

You may have heard this referred to as "airplane ear."

How long does airplane ear last?

On average, the sensation can last up to 30 minutes. However, if you experience airplane ear longer than an hour, seek medical assistance. Remember, popping in the ear most commonly occurs during take off/landing, so if you're experiencing the same sensation when pressure is equalized, it could indicate another issue.

Risks of flying with an ear infection

Pressure changes can be especially problematic for people flying with an ear infection. The infection can cause inflammation and swelling in the Eustachian tube and middle ear, making it more difficult for the pressure to equalize. 

As a result, you may experience increased discomfort and even pain during your flight. In some cases, the pressure changes can also cause the infection to worsen, which can result in more severe symptoms and longer recovery times.

Can you fly with an ear infection?

If you or your child are experiencing symptoms of an ear infection, it is best to avoid flying if possible. Children have shorter, narrower Eustachian tubes, so the pressure changes during a flight can exacerbate their infection, causing more pain and discomfort.

However, if flying is unavoidable, taking precautions to protect your ears and hearing is essential. 

Tips for flying with ear infection

Here are a few steps to reduce discomfort from pressure changes while flying.

Consult a doctor before flying

If you have an ear infection, talk to your healthcare provider before flying to ensure it's safe. They may recommend taking medication or other measures to help manage your symptoms and prevent further complications.

Filtered earplugs for flying with ear infection

Filtered earplugs designed for flying help more slowly equalize the pressure against your eardrum, making the experience much more comfortable.

These specially designed earplugs help slow the pressure changes as the airplane ascends or descends, giving the Eustachian tube more time to open and equalize the pressure within your ears.  

*NOTE these “ear planes ear plugs” are specifically designed to regulate air pressure they are not standard noise reduction ear plugs and do not provide noise protection which is unnecessary on a commercial airplane.

Decongestant or nasal sprays before flying

Nasal sprays and decongestants can help alleviate the discomfort and pain caused by airplane ear. They work by opening up your Eustachian tube passages, which can equalize the pressure in your ears and prevent them from feeling blocked.

Remember to consult your provider before choosing a decongestant or nasal spray to ensure it won't counteract with other medications you're taking.

Chew on gum or suck on hard candy

When you're in a plane, the changes in air pressure can cause the eardrum to bulge outward, leading to discomfort and pain. Therefore, chewing gum is a simple yet effective method to reduce pain in the ear while flying.

The chewing process creates a positive pressure in the mouth and throat, opening the Eustachian tube and helping to equalize the pressure in the middle ear. 

Yawning and swallowing while flying

You may have heard others give you this advice—and for good reason, too!

Yawning and swallowing help to open up the Eustachian tubes in your ears, allowing air to flow in and out more easily, relieving the pressure. It's a simple and effective way to make your flight more comfortable and enjoyable.

Profile woman on airplane

Pre-flight consultation, additional info

Before flying with an ear infection, consult your doctor to avoid worsening your condition. Ask them for recommendations to ensure your flight is more comfortable and enjoyable. Stay connected to our member blog for more tips, education and how-to guides on hearing health.

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