Changes in air pressure when flying can worsen symptoms of a sinus infection. While it’s best to avoid flying with a sinus infection, there are things you can do before and during your flight to relieve symptoms.

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, occurs when fluid builds up in the tissues in your sinuses, causing inflammation. Sinuses are the air-filled pockets in your skull surrounding your nasal cavities. Your sinuses are responsible for draining mucus out of your nasal passages.

Common symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • painful pressure in the cheeks and forehead
  • thick, yellow-green nasal discharge and stuffiness
  • cough
  • congestion
  • headache

It’s best to avoid flying with a sinus infection until your symptoms clear up, as the changes in air pressure can increase the pain and pressure in your sinuses.

This article takes a look at what to expect when flying with a sinus or ear infection and what you can do to relieve symptoms.

You probably notice your ears “pop” while on a plane. This popping occurs because of pressure changes in your eustachian tube.

Your eustachian tube is the opening connecting the middle ear with the nasal and sinus cavities. It’s responsible for:

  • protecting your ears from loud sounds
  • draining mucosal fluids
  • equalizing ear pressure

Cabin pressurization in an airplane aims to keep a safe, comfortable environment for passengers and crew at varying altitudes or great heights.

However, your eustachian tube has trouble equalizing or keeping up with the change in cabin pressure, particularly during takeoffs and landings. This can cause pressure and pain in your sinuses.

Your eustachian tubes are closed at baseline and open when you yawn, chew, or swallow. Chewing gum during ascent and descent can keep the eustachian tube open and allow the pressure to equalize between the middle ear and the airplane cabin atmosphere.

The change in cabin air pressure can also agitate your sinuses, causing sinus squeeze. Sinus squeeze, also known as barosinusitis or aerosinusitis, is an irritation that occurs when the lining of your sinuses can’t adjust to the sudden changes in the surrounding air.

Symptoms of sinus squeeze include:

  • pain
  • nosebleed
  • watery eyes
  • runny nose

To avoid sinus squeeze, wait until your sinus infection symptoms clear up before you take a flight. Or, you can take preventive measures to reduce symptoms before and during your flight.

Air pressure changes can also worsen ear infection symptoms, making it painful to fly.

Airplane ear, also known as ear barotrauma, barotitis, and aero-otitis, are other terms for ear discomfort that can occur during flight. This condition often happens when the air pressure changes as the plane ascends and descends. An ear infection can intensify these symptoms.

Airplane ear is one of the most common health problems people face with air travel.

The symptoms of airplane ear are:

  • discomfort
  • pain
  • fullness in ear
  • mild to moderate hearing loss

Severe complications of airplane ear may lead to:

  • severe pain
  • moderate to severe hearing loss
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • vertigo (feelings of being off balance)
  • hemotympanum (blood in the middle ear)

You can relieve this pressure by yawning or swallowing, but an ear infection can make this more difficult and even painful because the infection blocks airflow to your eustachian tube.

If you must travel with a sinus or ear infection, there are ways to relieve pressure and ease pain before and during your flight.

Below are some tips for relieving sinus and ear pain and pressure during a flight:

Seek medical care

Before your flight, speak with a healthcare professional to make sure you’re experiencing a sinus infection, as its symptoms are similar to:

A healthcare professional can provide you with appropriate treatment.

Use decongestants

Decongestants, available as pills and nasal sprays, work by shrinking the lining of your swollen nasal passages, allowing drainage in your sinuses. You can take the decongestant 30 minutes before your flight to relieve pressure and pain.

Try to avoid taking topical decongestants (decongestants you apply directly to the nasal cavity) for more than 7 days. Overuse of this medication can lead to rhinitis medicamentosa, or rebound congestion. This condition can cause inflammation in the lining of the nasal cavity, increasing nasal congestion.

Avoid sleeping during takeoff and landing

Sleeping while the plane ascends or descends can limit how often you swallow, affecting how often you pop your ears. Try to stay awake during the flight, or if you fall asleep, be sure to wake up before the plane takes off or begins to land.

Chew gum or drink water

Chewing gum and drinking water can pop your eustachian tube to temporarily relieve pressure and pain from sinus or ear infections.

Do the Valsalva maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is a breathing technique where you blow air through the eustachian tube to relieve pressure.

Here are the steps for doing the Valsalva maneuver:

  1. Pinch your nose close.
  2. Close your mouth.
  3. Gently blow your nose for 10–15 seconds.
  4. Repeat steps as necessary.

It’s best to avoid flying if you have a sinus or ear infection, as the change in air pressure can aggravate your symptoms.

If you must travel, be sure to take medications beforehand, swallow often, and use the Valsalva method for temporary relief.

If your sinus infection symptoms do not clear up within a week or so, seek medical care.