I suffer from chronic sinusitis, and have had blocked ears three times in my 16 years of flying as a flight attendant. The times I got blocked ears I actually didn’t know I had an upper sinus infection, otherwise I would likely have been able to prevent blocked ears with these tips that have saved me on other occasions. I am not a doctor: the advice I give here is from my own experience. As always, you should consult your physician before taking any new medications. These tips are for adults. To view my tips for children flying with congestion, read here.
How to Prevent Blocked Ears When Flying
A friend, of mine recently emailed me asking: “Any advice on flying with a sinus infection? I’m having some ear discomfort also.” (Side note: She had already been to the doctor and was cleared to fly, but was concerned about ear pain or blockage in flight.)
Here was my response (edited):
“Go now and buy Mucinex Extra Strength (1200mg—in the blue box). Take that tonight and in the morning (every 12 hours). Also buy Nasocort and take as directed. Buy EarPlanes, which are ear plugs that you put in about an hour before landing, when your ears are still clear. They will help prevent pressure build up as you descend. Drink lots of water. If you normally take allergy medicine, be sure to continue that as well. Other people recommend things like Sudafed or Afrin, but I don’t recommend these because of the side effects. In my experience, the Mucinex and Nasocort are just as effective without the adverse side effects. Drink lots of water.
“Those four things should get you through one flight at least without blocked ears. When you do have ear pressure building up, clear your ears as early and as often as possible. It’s harder to do when congested. Sometimes in order to clear my ears I open my mouth wide and look up to the ceiling, trying to yawn. Once I can relax enough to yawn, my ears will clear.”
My friend followed my advice and after the flight emailed me the result:
“I did okay yesterday. As we started to descend I had a lot of ear pressure, but I was able to pop my ears and I was fine. I cannot imagine the pain I would have had if I hadn’t taken the Mucinex and Nasocort. Thank you so much for your help!”
These items I recommend are available at all drug stores, but for your convenience I have also provided links within this post where you can purchase them on Amazon if you desire. These are affiliate links, and if you make a purchase through them I may receive a small commission which will go toward running this blog. I appreciate any support you are able to give me!
1) Take Mucinex
(*Right now Amazon has a coupon for 30% off Mucinex. I just clipped the coupon and added the 42 count to my Subscribe and Save order. Final cost was only $12.70, or $0.30 per tablet! Prices on Amazon change often. Check your cart for final cost before purchase.)
I am very sensitive to medications. Before Mucinex (Guaifenison) was over-the-counter, my endocrinologist told me to not take Sudafed, as it makes my heart race. I argued that I had to take Sudafed, as I was getting sinus infections regularly but had to continue flying. He prescribed Guaifenison. It is an expectorant, so I argued again that I don’t get chest congestion, which it is meant to treat. The doctor told me, trust me, it works. I started taking it when I was congested, and the doctor was right! I really does work wonders for both chest and nasal congestion! I recommend sticking with the Mucinex Maximum Strength, and not the Mucinex DM unless you actually NEED the cough suppressant in the Mucinex DM. When the Guaifenison starts working, it usually also helps to reduce coughing. It’s always wise to avoid medications that are unnecessary.
2) Use Nasocort
Nasocort is a steroid that helps treat allergies and open nasal passages.
3) Use EarPlanes
EarPlanes are special ear plugs that are designed to help keep your ears clear by regulating the air pressure. They have saved me on several occasions from getting blocked ears. It’s important that you clear your ears before putting them in. Put them in according to the directions about an hour before landing, before the plane starts to descend. You can use them for takeoff too, but I have very rarely seen anyone have trouble with their ears on takeoff.
4) Take Antihistamine (if you need it for allergies)
If you have allergies for which you usually take an antihistamine, be sure to continue taking that. You don’t want added sinus pressure from the sniffles that seasonal allergies bring.
5) Stay Hydrated
This is the most commonly overlooked “treatment” for sinus congestion. Staying hydrated helps loosen congestion and prevents dehydration (source: MayoClinic.org). Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can make dehydration worse.
6) Use Saline Spray
I forgot to recommend this to my friend in the above exchange, but saline spray is great for combating stuffiness.