December 14, 2009
Flying and Ears
With holiday vacation time approaching, parents have been flying up to me asking me if there's anything I can do to reduce their child's ear discomfort when they are on an airplane. Well let me take off on that topic and provide some information.
As you fly up air pressure decreases, and it increases as you go down. Although airline cabins are designed to not have passengers feel significant pressure changes, they can and do still occur. Air pressure builds up against the eardrum on descent almost like a one way valve. This pressure can be equalized or reduced between the outside and inside of the ear by opening the tube between the ear drum and the back of the nose. The popping sensation you sometimes hear means that the tube has opened and pressure is normalized.
If there is fluid or mucus in this tube from a cold or from swollen adenoids, the pressure that has built up in the middle ear cannot be reduced, even with yawning, and pain will occur. That is why doctors may sometimes suggest not flying if you have an ear infection because there's a chance the tubes will not open and equalize pressure easily.
If you want to make takeoffs and landings less painful, here are some suggestions:
1. Have your child drink lots of fluids during the flight. Swallowing keeps the tube open between the ear and back of the nose and equalizes pressures constantly so it doesn't build up. Staying hydrated will also help reduce the impact of the dry air in the plane, which may thicken any mucus in the tube and make it more likely that pain and discomfort will occur.
2. Acetaminophen taken before the flight can also help reduce the sensation of pain and prevent any inflammation from the increased pressure from occurring.
3. If you child is over three, chewing gum keeps the muscles in those tubes open, similar to swallowing repeatedly.
4. Using earplugs will prevent the outside pressure from pushing against the ear drum and that will help children be more willing to wear the earplugs.
5. If your child is an infant, breast or bottle feed them if they wake up as the plane is taking off or descending to help equalize the pressure changes.
6. Try to have your child yawn frequently if they are able to. Often watching someone else yawn will make your child yawn too.
7. If the ear pain after a flight is not better within a few hours, it is worthwhile to check with your child's doctor to make sure there is not something else occurring such as an ear infection that may require further treatment to help relieve the pain and discomfort.
Hopefully tips like this will make your concerns about flying and ear pain be "ear" today and gone tomorrow the next time you plan to take your infant or child on a flight.