Flying and Your Child's Ears
Many of us have felt that weird ear-popping sensation when we
fly. For kids (especially babies and young children), it can seem
especially odd and even scary at first. But you can reassure your
child that it's a common, normal part of flying.
This sometimes uncomfortable sensation is related to pressure
changes in the air space behind the eardrum (the middle ear). But
how does that work, exactly?
, a passageway that leads from the middle ear to the back of the
throat behind the nose, equalizes the air pressure in the middle
ear to the outside air pressure by opening and letting air reach
the middle ear. When your ears "pop" while yawning or
swallowing, your eustachian tubes are adjusting the air pressure in
your middle ears.
In children, however, the relatively narrow eustachian tubes may
not function as effectively, especially if they're clogged by
inflammation and mucus from an
or cold, or blocked by enlarged or swollen adenoids (lumps of
immune system tissue located near the openings of the eustachian
Whether you're flying, scuba diving, climbing a mountain, or
even riding in an elevator, air pressure decreases as you go higher
and increases as you go lower. If the pressure isn't equalized,
the higher air pressure pushes on one side of the eardrum and
causes pain. That explains why so many babies cry during those last
few minutes of the flight, when the air pressure in the cabin
increases as the plane prepares to land.
But the pain is only temporary - it won't cause any lasting
problems for your little one and will usually subside within a few
minutes as the eustachian tube opens to let the air pressure
equalize on both sides of the eardrum.
If your child has an ear infection, your doctor may recommend
delaying flying, if possible, until the infection is gone to avoid
this problem. If your child has had tubes inserted in the eardrums
because of ear fluid problems, the artificial tubes will help the
air pressure equalization happen more easily.
Tips for Easing the Ear Pain
Some simple things to try during air travel can help
equalize the air pressure in your child's ears and eliminate,
or at least decrease, ear pain. Have your child:
Drink plenty of decaffeinated fluids
(water is best) throughout the flight. Drinking a lot is very
important, not only because it encourages your child to continue
swallowing (which makes the eustachian tubes open), but also
because airplane air is dry, which thickens nasal mucus, making
it more likely for the eustachian tube to become clogged.
Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen
about a half hour before takeoffs or landings if you know your
child has ear pain when flying.
Chew gum or suck on hard candy
(only if your child is older than 3 years).
Take a bottle or pacifier or
If you bottle-feed, make sure your baby is sitting upright while
(if your child can do this intentionally).
Use nasal decongestant sprays
before takeoff and before the plane prepares to land to help open
the ear and nasal passages.
Stay awake for takeoff and landing.
During sleep, we don't swallow as often, so it's harder
to keep the air pressure in the middle ear equalized.
If your child is taking medications that contain antihistamines
or decongestants, talk to your child's doctor about whether to
continue them during the flight.
In some cases, a child may continue to have ear pain for longer
periods (up to several hours) if the ears don't
"pop." You can continue to give your child pain relievers
according to the package directions until the pain subsides. If it
continues for more than several hours, call your doctor for
With a little patience and some simple precautions, though, you
can make your next family flight less stressful and more
comfortable for both you and your child.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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