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Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders

Flying with congested ears and sinuses

07/16/2001

Question:

is it all right to fly with congested ear and sinuses? what damage can be done by flying with such conditions?

Answer:

Flying with congested ears and sinuses is typically uncomfortable but is not commonly a dangerous activity. Your ears are `equalized` in terms of pressure by your eustachian tube. When your nose and sinuses are congested, this can cause the eustachian tube to not function properly. Accordingly, your ears can become quite congested, full and sometimes painful. Under the worst circumstances, it is possible for the eardrum to rupture due to a pressure build up. However, this is a relatively rare occurrence.

An even rarer potential complication is barotrauma to the inner ear. In such a rare scenario, the pressure is transmitted to the inner ear and can potentially cause a leak of inner ear fluid. This can cause hearing loss and vertigo.

Using decongestants (such as pseudoephedrine orally or oxymetazoline nose spray prior to flying)has anecdotal evidence of helping patients with congested ears and sinuses.

When in doubt, be evaluated by your physician prior to flying. If there are signs of significant fluid accumulation or retraction of the ear drum, then postponing flying might be indicated. In dire circumstances, it is possible to insert a pressure equalizing tube through the eardrum so that altitude changes will not cause other damage to the middle or inner ears.

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Response by:

Daniel   Choo, MD Daniel Choo, MD
Associate Professor and Director, Division of Otology/Neurotology
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati