Flying with a cold: how I deal with it (and what works for me)

Flying with a cold: how I deal with it (and what works for me)

Unless you’re a hardcore AvGeek, no one wants to board a flight when they’re sick. Flying with a cold is a truly miserable experience, plus you risk spreading germs to everyone else on the plane. Not only that, you’ll get treated like Patient Zero in a zombie movie. Sometimes (ok, most of the time) it’s just better not to get on the plane at all.

Unfortunately, postponing a flight isn’t always an option. It can be expensive to reschedule, and emergencies of all kinds can force you to get on the plane no matter how you feel.

If you have to travel with a cold, it’s important to know the consequences (and how it affects your body). I’ll explain all that below, along with some handy tips to help you counteract a miserable flight experience…

Does flying make a cold worse?

Unless you’re already over the worst of it, flying with a cold can make your symptoms worse (and it’ll make you feel terrible). A lot of this has to do with the pressure involved, since colds will make your sinus passages much narrower than normal and create that sensation of a stuffed-up head.

Flying (mostly during take-off and landing) only amplifies these issues. If your sinus passages are already narrow because of a cold, they will get even narrower in flight and make it harder to breathe. The pressure in your head will increase and make you feel generally worse.

I learned this the hard way one a flight from San Francisco to Boston once. I felt fine prior to the flight, but the sinus pain (from the added pressure during takeoff and landing) was nearly unbearable. On top of that, it was very difficult to breathe. 

Also, the air inside an airplane is also typically drier than in other climates. This dry air can make you more dehydrated, which makes you feel sicker.

sinus pressure can feel worse on takeoff
The worst part about flying with a cold? You won’t know how bad it’s going to affect you until right about this moment, which is far too late in the sequence of events to abort the trip. Your only option at this point is to start pounding the decongestants (and the hard alcohol if the situation is dire enough).

Why shouldn’t you fly with a cold

Not only is flying with a cold a painful and uncomfortable experience for yourself, it can potentially affect your fellow passengers as well. When you have a cold on a plane, any germs you expel into the air through a sneeze or a cough will linger within your immediate surroundings until it passes into the onboard air filtration system.

You can’t open a window to flush these germs out, and if you don’t have hand sanitizer or gloves, anything you touch will potentially become contaminated with these germs.

Though you can avoid contaminating others by sneezing into a sleeve, wearing a mask, and using hand sanitizer profusely, there is always a risk involved in spreading germs when you fly.

Delta air lines hand sanitizer
Given the thickness of that plexiglass, I’d be willing to bet that Delta would prefer if we (the disguising germ-ridden passengers we are) didn’t even exist. At least they’re giving us the option of cleansing our filth with hand sanitizer.

In addition to spreading your cooties to others, you can risk damage to your sinuses and ears as well (see the next section).

Can flying with a cold damage your ears?

Even if you don’t have a cold, flying can give you ear barotrauma. Ear barotrauma, or airplane ear, is what happens when external and internal pressure is not the same, resulting in temporary hearing loss, stuffy head, and occasionally pain.

You can counteract most episodes of ear barotrauma by swallowing, chewing gum, or yawning. These actions can make your ear pop, resulting in an equilibrium of pressure for both internal and external forces.

Though ear barotrauma is a common enough occurrence, when you’re already suffering from a cold, it can feel much, much worse.

A cold can narrow your ear canal, making it harder for your middle ear to match the air pressure surrounding you. When you’re on a plane, this narrowed ear canal intensifies any ear barotrauma you might experience.

You might not be able to alleviate the pressure by simply swallowing, yawning, or chewing gum. In these cases, the pain to your head and eardrum can become unbearable. You might experience mild to severe hearing loss, vertigo, tinnitus, and even bleeding from your ear. Yikes.

While sometimes these symptoms might be temporary, they could also have more permanent results, such as hearing loss or ongoing tinnitus. In other words, this is something you need to take very seriously.

united first class cabin
Of all the places in this world to suffer from bleeding ears, this ranks pretty low for me.

What is the best decongestant to take before flying?

The question of which decongestant is best for flying will depend on the individual. Sudafed is what works best for me.

As always though, it’s best to ask your doctor about using it, because what works for me may not work the best for you. Generally, for shorter flights, I take Sudafed just before takeoff. For longer flights, I take it again roughly an hour before landing.

And yes, flying with medication is perfectly legal (pro tip: you’ll face less scrutiny if you keep it in it’s original packaging).

You can also try a nasal spray such as Neo-Synephrine or Afrin. Using a nasal spray about thirty minutes before your flight can help keep your nasal passages open during take-off.

If you’re experiencing congestion from allergies, not a cold, you can take your allergy medication instead.

How do you stop your ears from hurting when flying with a cold?

Depending on how severe your cold is, the only way to prevent them from hurting is not to fly at all. However, there are a few things you can do to help yourself feel more comfortable:

  • Yawn, chew gum, or swallow during take-off/landing
  • Use nasal sprays or decongestants
  • Use the Valsalva maneuver (described below)
  • Use filtered earplugs

Valsalva Maneuver

Despite it’s kinky-sounding name, you can use the Valsalva maneuver for both ascent and descent to help reduce the pressure on your ears. Simply exhale through your nose as if blowing into a tissue. At the same time, pinch your nostrils closed and keep your mouth shut. You may have to do this multiple times, especially as the plane is descending.

Filtered Earplugs

Filtered earplugs help equalize the pressure you feel during flight. Though you will likely still need to swallow or yawn to make your ears pop, the earplugs will decrease the chance that you will feel pain.

You can buy earplugs made for this purpose, or simply get any kind of filtered earplugs that feel comfortable in your ear.

737-800 at gate
If you want to kill two birds with one stone, try combining the Valsalva Maneuver with Kegel Exercises. The Kegel thing won’t do anything to relieve sinus pressure, but it’ll benefit you in ways you’ll appreciate one you’re healthy again. It’s an advanced-level move.

Can airlines refuse sick passengers?

According to the World Health Organization, airlines can refuse to let you board a plane while sick. This refusal will be contingent on your physical state, meaning that if you are obviously severely ill, the airline will likely try to convince you to go to the hospital.

Basically, if an airline crew believes flying will be detrimental to your already poor health and the health of your fellow passengers, they can turn you away.

Sometimes the decision of whether or not you can board is up to the pilot. If he or she thinks your symptoms are contagious and that you could potentially infect others, they might ask you to delay your flight. The good news is some airlines will accommodate your illness by charging less (or even nothing) to switch your flight.

Also, if you do end up getting on the plane and your condition worsens in the air, the pilot will only make an emergency landing if your illness could potentially kill you, and only if it’s safe for them to do so.

Tips for flying with a cold

Flying with a cold is never a fun experience. I’ve done it more times that I care to admit over the years, and from those (often miserable) experiences, I’m far less likely to ever do it again. However, if postponing your trip is not an option, here are some tips for flying while sick that have worked for me:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Chew gum (it’ll help to pop your ears during takeoff and landing)
  • Avoid dehydrating fluids like alcohol or hot caffeinated beverages
  • Stock up on tissues
  • Stock up on cough drops
  • Carry small lotion/lip balm
  • Don’t sleep during take-off or landing
  • Take cold medication or decongestants

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