February 1, 2007

PAIN ON A PLANE: How to Avert Ear Pain on a Plane

By James A. Fussell

When a Boston couple and their daughter recently got kicked off an AirTran Airways flight because their 3-year-old wouldn't calm down, the parents not only blamed the airline for being insensitive, but they also blamed ear discomfort for triggering the toddler's tantrum.

While there's no cure for being a 3-year-old, there are things you can do to prevent or reduce ear discomfort on flights. Here are some ideas that might help, courtesy of Parker Thornton, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Shawnee Mission Medical Center.

Carry a small bottle of nasal decongestant spray such as Afrin in your carry-on bag. (Make sure it's 3 ounces or smaller and stored in a quart-sized, zip-top, clear plastic bag.)

This can offer immediate relief for ear discomfort, because much of the problem with pressure and pain in the ears on airplanes comes from the blockage of the eustachian tube that runs behind the nose and up into the ear. (When your ears pop, Thornton said, that means your eustachian tube has opened up.)

If the tube is blocked because of a cold or sinus problem, it cannot open as easily to equalize the pressure. This is especially important in children, because the tube sits flatter in kids than in adults and has a harder time opening even without the changes in pressure experienced in airplanes.

Take oral decongestants such as Sudafed a half-hour to 45 minutes before you take off to keep the eustachian tube from being blocked.

If you have allergies, taking allergy medicines or antihistamines such as Claritin or Allegra may help, as do nasal steroid sprays such as Flonase or Nasonex.

If you or a child experiences ear pain while flying, ask your doctor about a prescription for painkiller ear drops. Typically used for small children with ear infections, the drops can be used by anyone. They work by numbing the eardrum.

Try EarPlanes, a pressure-equalizing earplug sold over the counter in kid and adult sizes. While Thornton doesn't have any firsthand experience with them, he has heard good reports.

"I've had patients tell me they've tried them, and they say they've helped equalize the pressure and relieve the pain."

A drink of water also can help some people with ear discomfort. When you swallow, Thornton said, the muscles surrounding your eustachian tube orifice behind the nose may contract and help open the tube.

And, finally, don't forget the old standbys of chewing gum, yawning or attempting to blow gently through your nose while pinching your nostrils shut with your fingers. All those can help unblock your ears and reduce pressure and pain.