Flying with congestion/cold?
June 10, 2019 12:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm due to fly 3,000 miles back to the east coast tomorrow. A bit worried because I came down with a cold last week. I'm over the cold but am still congested, with thick mucus coming from my nose. Bonus point: holding my nose and exhaling on the flight might not work, because my nose is very raw from continuous blowing, and even the littlest touch hurts.

Last week, I came down with a bug that was going around (on my vacation, nonetheless!) and got a cold -- sore throat, cold, earpain (sensitivity to elevation changes -- am in the mountains), etc. I've pretty much recovered from the cold itself, but I'm still experiencing congestion and the occasional cough. When I say congestion, I mean I still am spitting up mucus every now and then, and thick mucus came down from inside my nose a few times (gross, I know...sorry!). I'm in recovery mode, although not at 100%.

My big concern is: I'm flying back on a 5-hour flight tomorrow. I'm very concerned about the possible congestion and ear pain that might happen on the flight. One big problem is that ordinarily, when my ears become "congested" on a plane, I can easily hold my nose and exhale/yawn to pop them. However, my nose was rubbed raw from the constant blowing when I had the cold last week, and is still very sensitive to touch. In fact, it actually hurts a bit to chew or move my face around, because the motion reaches my nose, which feels the movement. I can't touch my nose without it hurting. :\ I've been applying plenty of Aquaphor on the sores, but it's not healing fast enough.

During my vacation, I also traveled up and down mountains, and after the cold, my ears became easily congested and painful, requiring constant popping. This was for minor elevation changes (ie, 1k, 2k feet maybe? Tahoe, if that helps), so my concern is that being 10k feet above might cause serious pain. The earpain has since then pretty much subsided, so far, but who knows?

So! Long-winded question to a close -- any OTC medications or recommendations to help me survive my flight? And, yes, I know, YANMD.
posted by dubious_dude to Human Relations (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Real Sudafed (pseudoephedrine)- the kind you have to sign for at the pharmacy counter, not the kind that you can get right off the shelf- will go a long way helping with congestion.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:38 AM on June 10 [10 favorites]

Pseudoephedrine if you have ANY sinus congestion. The real stuff, that you have to sign for at the pharmacy counter. I had the worst pain ever in my ears when I flew with sinus congestion. Sudafed cleared the congestion right out and made it so I could fly home.
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:39 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

My insurance is Kaiser, and I believe I have to use their pharmacy. I'm far away from the nearest Kaiser location, and I'm out of network, anyway. When you say I have to sign for real Sudafed, do you mean I have to get it pre-approved, or do you just mean I have to show ID and sign some kind of confirmation that I'm aware of the risks, etc.? I'm not sure if there's enough time to get the Sudafed, given that my flight is in 24 hours. I do vaguely remember seeing Sudafed on the shelves, though, at CVS.
posted by dubious_dude at 12:45 AM on June 10

Go to any Walgreens or CVS or grocery store with a pharmacy, and ask at the pharmacy counter for pseudoephedrine. You will pay for it out of pocket and do not not need any approval from Kaiser or a doctor, but you have to sign for it in a register and there’s a limit on how much you can buy because people were buying tons and using it to make meth before this tightened up. It will take 10 minutes and is worth the very small hassle.

The stuff you can grab off the shelves has a different active ingredient and does not work nearly as well.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:53 AM on June 10 [11 favorites]

the real pseudoephedrine sudafed is OTC but dispensed by the pharmacy because it can be used to make meth. ask for it at the counter, expect to show id, but it will be priced reasonably like other OTC drugs.
posted by zippy at 1:03 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Vick's inhaler and chewing gum. I've blown two eardrums from flying while congested: you do not want this
posted by scruss at 1:03 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

By recommending "real" Sudafed, the person above means you should get something with pseudoephedrine as the active ingredient instead of phenylephrine.

I've had good results using nasal spray containing oxymetazoline (such as Afrin). You should spray about 15 minutes prior to takeoff and again about 15 minutes prior to landing. The spray prior to landing is the really important one because the increasing pressure on descent can really kill your sinuses.
posted by theory at 1:11 AM on June 10 [6 favorites]

On top of the pseudoephedrine (total lifesaver), get something to suck on and something to drink during both takeoff and landing. The swallowing action can help with unblocking, and hydration will help generally.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:36 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I’ve heard good things of Earplanes - but have not tried them myself.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:47 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

To summarize what everyone has said above about drugs:

1. Go to a pharmacy and buy non-prescription Afrin nose spray (oxymetazoline) or the generic equivalent.

2. Also buy non-prescription Sudafed tablets (made with pseudoephedrine) or the generic equivalent. You may have to go up to the pharmacist to get the Sudafed. Make sure you don't accidentally buy Sudafed made with phenylephrine, since the store may stock both. It does not work as well.

3. Take the medications as per the directions on the packaging. You may want to use the Afrin just a few minutes before you board the flight, since it works very quickly. If you take Afrin and Sudafed, there is almost 0 percent chance you'll have congestion or pain on the flight.
posted by whitewall at 2:09 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

If you have travel insurance that includes medical stuff (pro-tip, from now on, always get travel insurance, I know it feels silly to get it just for in country stuff but when you need it, you need it. I use a comparison site and not the stuff sold by the airline) you can take this head cold to a doctor/minute clinic, get advised in writing not to travel, immediately share this information with your travel insurance provider. The insurance provider will advise you how to proceed for getting reimbursement for your missed stuff and your now more expensive return ticket. Kaiser and/or the travel insurance may reimburse you for some portion of the out of network care, so save your receipts.

I would also ask that doctor’s advice regarding what to take. In my personal experience that has been Afrin, Neti Pot, saline sinus spray, and mucinex. The mucinex is because you want the snot to come OUT, not be dried out in your sinuses where it’s taking up space. The doc will look at your situation and tell you if pseudoephedrine is more appropriate for you right now.

Also, warm wet washcloths (I do mine as hot as I can stand them) placed over your face and then facial lymph drainage (YouTube will have videos of how to do that, use one that starts and ends with you tapping near your collar bones) will also encourage things to get moving.

As for your raw tender nose, get a small container of Vaseline. As small as you can get so that airport security doesn’t take it from you. Apply liberally. If you can get your hands on Ponaris nasal emollient add a dab of that inside each nostril. I think it’s also by prescription.
posted by bilabial at 2:19 AM on June 10

I feel for you. In addition to advice above see if you get something to heal your irritated nose. This sometimes makes you even more sensitive and traps you in a nose blowing cycle. Aloe Vera tissues all the way and something to relieve skin around nostrils. Vaseline, aloe or whatever works for you. Hope you feel better soon.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 2:23 AM on June 10

After having suffered air pressure induced ear pain while flying with a cold, my ENT advised the following: Squirt Afrin nasal spray just before takeoff then again just before landing. (You do this with your head bent over.) I don't fly without it now, since the ear pain I'd had was extremely painful. Moreover, my hearing was compromised in one ear for over a year. I know do this whenever I fly even without having a cold.
posted by Elsie at 2:39 AM on June 10

I always get a chapped/raw nose when I get a cold and I’ve found that a medicated lip balm like Carmex, Blistex, or even just the regular Burt’s Bees works better than plain Vaseline or Aquaphor. It burns like billy-o the first time you apply it but afterward has a pleasant cooling sensation and seems to heal faster than with the regular stuff.
posted by coppermoss at 3:17 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

Whether or not you can just buy real Sudafed may depend on what state you're in. For example, in Oregon, you cannot buy it over the counter as described, it requires a prescription. But if you go over to Washington, you just show ID and sign for it at the counter, pay a relatively cheap price, and you're all good.
posted by stormyteal at 4:31 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Nthing pseudoephedrine. It's a miracle drug. Ask at the pharmacy counter. It'll also keep you wide awake for the flight.
posted by lukez at 5:43 AM on June 10

I had a screaming-pain-level ear infection during a long vacation, and I was SO worried about eardrum rupture. I have so much sympathy for you right now! What got me through the flights was a ridiculous number of throat lozenges, probably in excess of the recommended daily allowance TBH. I’d finish one and then pop the next in so that I was constantly sucking. It made the pain bearable and my eardrum did not pop. I also did self-care stuff on the ground to try to clear it up - Neti pot, and after a week of no improvement, antibiotics - but that MF earache wasn’t really gone until we were ready to head home almost three weeks later. Nevertheless: many flights, no rupture. Best wishes to you for a comfortable-enough flight - you are not doomed.
posted by eirias at 5:44 AM on June 10

Oh and - yes to real pseudoephedrine. When I moved from a country where it was available with a signature to one where it was not available without a prescription, I really noticed the difference.
posted by eirias at 5:47 AM on June 10

The sore nose thing is not a cold symptom. It's the effect of using Kleenexes and scraping your skin with wood pulp.

Cotton hankies won't do that to you. Yes, you need to wash them, but colds will never be as rough.
posted by zadcat at 5:47 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Earplanes! If you can find them, these will save you from so much discomfort. They are designed to resolve the very issue you're concerned with. For the nose, get some vaseline. I'd also suggest you get some puffs plus with lotion or similar to take with you too.
posted by belau at 5:51 AM on June 10

Nthing "Sudafed with pseudoephedrine". It's technically an OTC drug, and as others have said you only ask for it behind the counter because people can use it to make meth (you'll have to sign something, but the upshot of your signing it is basically you're saying "i swear that I am not Walter White").

In a pinch - I get sinus headaches in regular life, and I've also had success with ibuprofen, taking two pills instead of just one. I figure that part of the reason for congestion is inflamed and swollen sinus tissue, and since ibuprofen reduces swelling, that helps a bit.

(Important note: I only take the two pills of ibuprofen ONCE and that's it, instead of two for a first dose and then another two four hours later, etc.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 AM on June 10

Also a huge vote for Earplanes. I am constantly congested all of the time, and still have pain even when I take REAL sudafed, drink liquids, etc. They're so cheap and so good. For absolute best results, put them firmly in (corkscrew-style) after the cabin door is shut and don't take them off again til the cabin door is shut. (for minimum results, put them in before or just as you start descending.)

The only bummer is you can't really use headphones, but by god, they're so worth it.
posted by knownassociate at 6:49 AM on June 10

Maybe you can learn another way to pop your ears? I have learned to open up my Eustachian tubes by flexing some muscles near my jaw - I can hear a sound inside my ears when it happens even if there is no pressure change. If there's a tall building nearby where you can ride the elevator, or a hill you can travel up, I suppose you can test it that way too.
posted by exogenous at 7:20 AM on June 10

In addition to pseudoephedrine, Afrin, as other have suggested, is also a miracle drug. You have to be really careful to follow the directions on the label, though, and not use it even a tiny bit more than directed. If you use it for more than two days in a row (or maybe three at the absolute outside) you get a rebound effect and you’ll wind up with chronic nasal congestion.
posted by holborne at 7:29 AM on June 10

If you are still sneezing, do your fellow travelers a favor and get a paper mask to reduce contagion. And get a small travel size container of hand sanitizer and use it often on your hands. If you are frequently touching your runny nose and other objects, you are spreading your cold to others.
posted by JackFlash at 7:52 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

I fly cross country and back every couple months, and am prone to head colds and sinus congestion, so I feel your pain. My arsenal includes:

Mucinex (guaifenesin), taken the day before and the day of the flight
Original Sudafed (pseudophedrine), hour before flight
Afrin, right before takeoff and descent

Basically what everyone else is saying, but I want to emphasize how wonderful Mucinex and Sudafed are together. The Mucinex gets whats in there out, and the Sudafed helps to dry out and shrink what won't come out. Together they are incredibly effective.

You'll be fine!
posted by JuliaIglesias at 8:22 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

There is also Mucinex-D ("D" for decongestant) which is Mucinex with pseudoephedrine in one tablet (also requires asking pharmacist for).
posted by ShooBoo at 8:44 AM on June 10

As long as you don't have a wool allergy, A+D diaper cream is absolutely incredible for raw/drippy noses.

It's over-the-counter, and the vaseline soothes and protects, the lanolin forms a barrier against subsequent moisture penetration that'll irritate your skin, and the combined texture is thick so that you can rub it in and really get some protection through runny noses and nose blowing.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:47 AM on June 10

Airplanes are pressurized, so altitude changes in a plane don't correlate to altitude changes on mountains. If you aren't taking OTC meds for congestion (I like guaifenesin) now, try one out today and see how it goes, that will probably be sufficient. If it doesn't work well enough, you can look at adding things for your flight.

If you want to see a doc, I made an ER visit to Kaiser on a trip and they fully reimbursed me because I was far from a KP facility. If you search your plan details, you should find exact mileages. This is probably a good use case for a doc-in-a-box at a pharmacy or online appointments if those are available to you.
posted by momus_window at 9:46 AM on June 10

Thanks so much for all the VERY helpful advice.

I talked with my mom, and she insists that the antihistamine (original prescription strength, allergy relief, loratadine tablets) she has is a decongestant, and would help. As we are a bit pressed for time, would that be at all helpful, or should I insist on going to the pharmacy?
posted by dubious_dude at 10:08 AM on June 10

If you actually have an infection (and are not simply having the mother of all allergic reactions), Loratadine will not help at all. Go to a pharmacy and get a powerful decongestant.

Incidentally, if you can find it, consider trying Bronkaid. It seems to be only intermittently available because it has straight-up ephedrine in it, but that stuff is like an atom bomb vs. congestion. Only down side is that you might be literally vibrating with excess energy while on the plane.
posted by aramaic at 10:22 AM on June 10

No. Antihistamines are not decongestants. Get the pseudoephedrine.
posted by JackFlash at 10:30 AM on June 10 [6 favorites]

Go to CVS, get real Sudafed, a bag of hard candy, and the tissues with lotion.

Ps Your mom is wrong.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 10:46 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

I personally have never found that anything works as well as real pseudoephedrine. It’s like magic. If I were you, I’d stop for it.
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:13 AM on June 10

Pseudoephedrine. Accept no substitutes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:30 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Insist. And get Afrin spray. That with pseudoephedrine. Afrin is the thing my mom's ENT makes her do. She has burst ear drums in-flight in the past, so the Afrin is the preventive for that.
posted by Stewriffic at 12:54 PM on June 10

No. Loratadine won’t be strong enough.

Real pseudoephedrine and Afrin or Vick’s Sinex.

And drink lots and lots of water.
posted by christiehawk at 2:05 PM on June 10


As I really am feeling much better overall, other than some congestion (which keeps going down everyday), I went ahead and purchased the generic CVS pseudoephedrine for nasal congestion (still required my ID but was painless otherwise). $10 cheaper and the same product, anyway. That should hopefully do the trick! I also purchased some candy to suck on, and will ask for tea and plenty of water.

I’ll report back how it goes after tomorrow!
posted by dubious_dude at 7:40 PM on June 10

Pseudoephedrine doesn’t work for me, but Afrin (get the no drip kind) works miracles. (I mean, I know you’re set for this trip, but if in the future you need something, nthing Afrin.) Good luck!
posted by greermahoney at 9:43 PM on June 10

Just landed in the east coast! Report: the pseudoephedrine really helped! I didn’t have any more ear pain than I normally do when flying. What a big relief!

Again, thanks so much for your valuable help; this was a good learning experience for me! :)
posted by dubious_dude at 1:21 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I see that the original problem has been addressed and the flight is over, but in case you check back here, a couple of people mentioned aloe vera / lotion tissues, and I wanted to second that. I used to get a dreadfully painful chapped nose after a heavy cold, but it hasn't happened to me since the early '00s, when Kleenex brought out balm-infused tissues and I made the swtich. They're terrible for cleaning glasses with, but brilliant when you have a cold. Here in the UK they're branded as "Kleenex Balsam" and name-check aloe vera, vitamin E and calendula; a quick look at the Kleenex site suggests the US equivalent might be "soothing lotion" tissues.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:17 AM on June 14

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