Flying: Tips for Equalizing Pressure

A cold doesn't stop many passengers from getting on a plane. What you should consider in order to take off without problems

The throat hurts, the nose is tight. But is that why you want to cancel a long-awaited vacation or an important business trip? Hardly anyone can accept that. In the case of a severe cold in the plane, ventilation problems in the middle ear and problems with pressure equalization can occur. The consequences: earache, cotton wool sensation and reduced hearing.

Dr. Dirk Heinrich, President of the German Professional Association of Ear, Nose and Throat Doctors, therefore advises: "Basically, you shouldn't fly with a cold." Fluid could collect behind the eardrum. In the worst case, an otitis media develops as a result of the ventilation disturbance.

Pharmacist Jens Bielenberg from Westerhorn in Schleswig-Holstein has experienced first hand what it means to ignore such advice. "When I flew in spite of a catarrh in the middle ear, I had severe pain. Symptoms of what is known as barotrauma also occurred during the air travel afterwards." Here pharmacists and doctors explain what troubled air travelers should be aware of.

Equalize pressure

Strong pressure changes occur in the passenger cabin, especially during take-off and landing. Normally the Eustachian tube - an approximately three and a half centimeter long connecting path between the nasopharynx and the ear - compensates for these differences. Movements when yawning, swallowing and chewing can open the tube - pressure equalization succeeds. Frequent flyers often take gummy bears with them on board, which they chew extensively. Sugar-free chewing gum is more tooth-friendly.

"If the pressure equalization does not work by yawning, swallowing or chewing, you should try to bring it about in another way," advises ENT specialist Heinrich. This is done with the help of special breathing pressure maneuvers like diving: "Shut your mouth and nose, then press air against it - without letting it out," explains Heinrich. The pressure that is built up actively forces air through the ear trumpet into the middle ear. Use the exercise on landing.

Nasal spray and earplugs

Some air travelers rely on decongestant nasal spray when they have problems with equalizing the pressure. However, it has not been scientifically proven that it can counteract a dysfunction of the Eustachian tube and thus prevent barotrauma. It is still worth trying to keep the airways in the nasopharynx clearer. It is best to spray the spray in the nose one hour before take-off or before the descent.

The helpers, which are available in the pharmacy, are supposed to optimize the pressure distribution in the ear during take-off and landing and thus prevent pain. Even with this aid, there are no clear assessments with regard to its effectiveness. However, pharmacist Bielenberg swears by it: "Since I've been using these plugs, I no longer have any problems with pressure equalization when flying."

Clarification by an ear, nose and throat doctor

Anyone with a very bad cold should consult an ENT doctor before the flight and have their ability to fly clarified. The doctor measures whether and how the eardrum can move in order to compensate for pressure differences. As a preventive measure, the ENT doctor can make a small incision in the eardrum so that the ear is better ventilated.

Surgical intervention can help people with chronic ventilation problems in the middle ear. The ear trumpet is expanded using a catheter. However, there is still a lack of knowledge about the long-term success of this relatively new method.