Flying with an ear infection can make it difficult for you to equalize the pressure in your ears with the pressure in the airplane cabin. This can cause ear pain and feel as if your ears are stuffed.

In severe cases, the inability to equalize pressure can result in:

Keep reading to learn more about flying with an ear infection, and how to prevent and treat the associated pain and discomfort.

Ear barotrauma is also known as airplane ear, barotitis, and aero-otitis. The stress on your eardrum is caused by an imbalance in the pressure in the airplane cabin and your middle ear.

It’s one of the most common health complaints for air travelers.

When taking off and landing, the air pressure in the plane will change faster than the pressure in your ear. In many cases, you can help equalize that pressure by swallowing or yawning. But if you have an ear infection, equalization can be difficult.

When flying, a popping sensation in the ears signifies a change in pressure. This sensation is caused by pressure changes in the middle ear, an area behind the eardrum of each ear. The middle ear is attached to the back of the throat by the Eustachian tube.

When the cabin pressure changes, the Eustachian tube equalizes the pressure in the middle ear by opening and letting air in or out. When you swallow or yawn, your ears pop. That’s the pressure in your middle ears being adjusted by your Eustachian tubes.

If you don’t equalize the pressure, it can build on one side of your eardrum, causing discomfort. This is often temporary, though. Your Eustachian tubes will eventually open and the pressure on both sides of your eardrum will equalize.

When the plane ascends, air pressure decreases, and when it descends, air pressure increases. Flying isn’t the only time this happens. Your ear also deals with changes in pressure during other activities, such as scuba diving or hiking to and from higher altitudes.

Keeping your Eustachian tubes open is critical to preventing barotrauma. If you have a severe cold, allergy, or ear infection, you may want to consider rescheduling your air travel. If you can’t reschedule, do the following:

  • Call your doctor’s office for advice.
  • Take a decongestant about an hour before takeoff, then follow the medication’s usage instructions.
  • Uses a decongestant nasal spray.
  • Take an antihistamine.

In general, a child’s Eustachian tubes are narrower than an adult’s, which can make it harder for their Eustachian tubes to equalize air pressure. This difficulty in equalizing air pressure is made worse if the child’s ears are blocked with mucus from an ear infection.

This blockage could result in pain and, in certain circumstances, a ruptured eardrum. If you have a flight scheduled and your child has an ear infection, your pediatrician may suggest delaying your travel.

If your child has had ear tube surgery, it’ll be easier for pressure to be equalized.

How to help your child equalize pressure in their ears

  • Encourage them to drink water or other noncaffeinated fluids. Swallowing liquids helps to open the eustachian tubes.
  • Try bottle-feeding or breastfeeding infants. For best results, hold your child upright while feeding.
  • Make sure they stay awake for takeoff and landing, as they’ll swallow less while sleeping.
  • Encourage them to yawn frequently.
  • Have them suck on hard candy or chew gum, but only if they’re age 3 or older.
  • Teach them to equalize pressure by taking a slow breath, pinching their nose, closing their mouth, and exhaling through their nose.
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With air travel, changes in cabin pressure can often be felt during takeoff and landing, as your body works to equalize the air pressure in your middle ear to the cabin pressure.

Having an ear infection can interfere with that equalization process, causing pain, and, in severe cases, damage to your eardrum.

If you have an ear infection and upcoming travel plans, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to minimize discomfort. They may recommend medication to open up clogged Eustachian tubes.

If traveling with a child, ask their pediatrician for advice on making the trip safer and more comfortable. Their pediatrician may suggest delaying travel or offer tips on how to help your child equalize their middle ear pressure.