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While the avoidance of outdoor and indoor pollutants is important in ensuring healthy sinuses, for those of us who frequently find ourselves up in the clouds, understanding how air travel and your sinuses are related can be critical to prevent sinus pain and pressure.
During lift-off and landing, changes in the air pressure inside the plane’s cabin, affects the air inside and outside of your head. If your sinuses are congested, this means an unbalanced amount of pressure, which can be a painful experience. If severe enough, it can also traumatize the sinuses, increase nasal congestion, heighten allergies, and worsen colds.
A further consequence of the failure of sinus and ear pressure to equalize with that of the cabin pressure includes susceptibility to infection and blockages of the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose (called the Eustachian tube.) If left untreated, and without appropriate preventative measures, an individual can experience pain, develop “tinnitus” (a ringing in the ears), vertigo (a sense of loss of balance), bleeding or rupturing of the eardrum, or even hearing loss.
Additionally, many people contract a sinus infection due to transferring bacteria and viruses from surfaces to their eyes, nose and mouth. Along with low humidity, these factors may inflame the sinus’s delicate mucous membranes. As a result, those who are easily susceptible to sinus infections, and even those who are not, may wind up entering the Arrival Gate with the start of sinusitis. Speak with sinus specialist if this occurs often, untreated sinus infections have been shown to decrease your quality of life.
Low moisture content, increased density of infectious agents on surfaces, and pressure changes during ascent and descent can all contribute to sinus problems. Take care to follow these SEVEN IMPORTANT TIPS as preventative measures to minimize the potential damaging effects that that air travel can wreak on your sinuses.
(1) Use a saline solution during the flight to minimize the damage caused by the dry air and low humidity.
Pack a small bottle of saline solution in your carry-on luggage or stow-away bag (3 ounces or less), and use it approximately once an hour, in an effort to maintain moisture in the nose. Over-the-counter saline solutions are readily available in travel sizes. There are now saline gel sprays that will last longer than the saline spray alone.
(2) Carry a decongestant spray with you to use before you board your flight and/or before descent.
If you have sinus pressure during flights then you should bring along a decongestant spray (Oxymetazoline or Phenylephrine), found in the nasal aisle at the drug store, and use it approximately one hour before a flight of any duration. This will assist in clearing your nasal passages and ensuring proper sinus ventilation during and throughout your flight. You can alternatively take an oral decongestant like (Pseudoephedrine or Phenylephrine) an hour before the flight as well. You need to use caution as decongestants can cause nasal dryness by opening the nose more and exposing the inside of the nose to dry air. A decongestant spray can also be used to slow a nosebleed should one occur.
(3) Drink several glasses of water before and during exceptionally long flights (international and cross-country domestic).
The poor ventilation felt at high altitudes contributes to the dry air in the interior cabin, and drinking water will combat the lack of moisture in your body. Drinking water not only ensures proper moisture levels in the body, but also, more importantly, preserves a moist nasal system.
(4) Steam the Sinuses.
An airplane has the same or even lower relative humidity as a desert. The dry air decreases the flow of mucus in the nose and lets bacteria and viruses stick to the dry mucosa inside the nose. A deviated septum will cause the open side of the nose to become even more dried out. Dry air can also stimulate a sinus infection in those predisposed to acute or chronic sinusitis. Breathing in the steam from an herbal tea will allow the sinuses to clear themselves in about 15 minutes and decrease the chance of a sinus infection.
(5) Avoid caffeine & alcohol.
It is also extremely important for passengers to avoid alcohol and caffeine on long flights, despite their popularity, because these beverages contribute to dehydration and a loss of moisture. Therefore, prevent over-drying of the nasal passages by avoiding these drinks and by substituting them with glasses of water during your flight.
(6) Complete the “Modified Valsalva” maneuver, an exercise whereby one closes one’s mouth, lightly pinches one’s nose shut with the thumb and forefinger, swallows, and blows into the nose without releasing the thumb and forefinger. This maneuver works to equalize the pressure in one’s head, sinuses and ears during liftoff and landing.
Special Note: Dr. Bennett encourages individuals who complete this technique to take care not to blow too powerfully. Also, Dr. Bennett recommends that the maneuver ought to be completed several times per minute during liftoff and landing – the times when the changes in cabin pressures are most noticeable. It is also helpful to complete the exercise a few times per hour once the plane is in the air.
EarPlanes are a specially designed product first created by the Air Force that function as a great way to regulate air pressure in the ears during a flight. These special, discreet, earplugs minimize ear discomfort during the plane’s ascent and descent, while still allowing you to hear normally. They can be worn while using headphones during the flight. EarPlanes are inexpensive (typically under $10) and are available at drugstores and kiosks in the airport, so they are widely available and also won’t put a strain on your wallet in the name of sinus health.
(7) Sanitize your hands. When you fly, bacteria and viruses can be found on many of the airplane and airport surfaces including seat belts, armrests, trays, control buttons, faucets, and door handles. These pathogens can enter your body through contact with your mucous membranes including your eyes, nose and mouth. Having a small bottle of hand sanitizer can lower the risk that you will transfer bacteria and viruses from your hands to your face. Sanitizing wipes can be used to clean surfaces near your seat that you may contact as well. Unless there is someone sneezing or coughing near you, a mask is less helpful to prevent infection as air turnover in a plane can be as little as 2 to 3 minutes.
(Bonus tip) Wear warm clothing or bring along a sweater, as the interior cabin of the plane is usually kept at a cool temperature.This will prevent you from fatigue or chill during your flight. Cold doesn’t cause viral infections but it may weaken your immune response to viral exposure.
Keeping in mind these 7 simple tips can prevent you from that take-off and landing sinus discomfort. Following the rules of healthy sinus care will allow air travel and your sinuses to get along so you can fly in comfort.