1 ear still stuffy after flight. Is this bad?
October 3, 2007 3:32 AM   Subscribe

Tell-me-I'm-not-going-deaf-filter: I was flying home from Chicago one night ago, happily listening to the new Cornelius album - drifting off into the soft relief that benedryl supplies when you have been rocking a head cold for 2 days (sore throat, leaky nose, watery eyes, headache) - when suddenly I'm wide awake with a severe pain in both my ears from the plane starting its decent. And it lasts. I swallow and swallow, but I'm reeling in pain, saying terribly mean things to my very confused and sleepy girlfriend - and it doesn't stop until well after I'm off the plane.

The pain at least. My left ear though is still stuffy ( I can hear things but its ~weird~), and though I've loaded up decongestants they don't seem to be helping.

1. I just need someone to tell me this isn't super-strange. That people who have the darned luck of being sick before flight have the darned luck of being stuffy in the ear for a day or two after, and that my ear drum is very likely not irrevocably damaged. Consider this an internet hug. I need this.

2. I had a pair of those in the ear headphones in - could that have multiplied my problems?

Subfilter: I have no insurance, SoL.

3. I will go to Dr. if it doesn't get better in a day or two (I really enjoyed that Cornelius album), but is there some sort of signs I should be aware of that this is more urgent and would require me to wake my girlfriend (again) to rush me to the emergency room because my future of stereophonic enjoyment may be on the line? Right now its no worse then a bad cold on one side of my head. A little achy on the inside.

4. and if I stick my finder in there, I can hear a little tone (only if I stick my finger in there) - which I know from one or two concerts isn't good, but it isn't bad.... right?

(I know none of you are doctors, but still I need your highly dubious internet opinion to sleep at night)
posted by mrgreyisyelling to Health & Fitness (45 answers total)
The same thing happened to me when I was a bit younger and working for the airlines. I started feeling icky while running around in Vegas, and on the flight home, my head felt like it exploded as we ascended and descended again.

The culprit? A sinus infection. All those boogies up in my sinuses created a closed air pocket that expanded and contracted as the plane went up (and pressurized) and went back down (and depressurized).

Worse pain then snakes on a plane.

IANAD, but there's plenty of cheap antibiotics that will fight off sinus infections if you can get in to a free clinic to get the prescription
posted by phredgreen at 3:41 AM on October 3, 2007

Airplane Ear!

Long story short, barotrauma goes away on its own generally, but things may have popped. Read those and now you have a nifty phrase to Google.
posted by disillusioned at 3:43 AM on October 3, 2007

Have you tried a Valsalva manoeuvre? Breathe in, close your mouth, pinch your nose, exhale gently. You can also try yawning. All this will open your Eustachian tubes and equalise the pressure between the middle ear and the ambient air. Since you have a cold, the tubes could be clogged up.

Don't worry about stuffy ears. I sometimes get them when I run or yawn, and they go away on their own after a while.
posted by stereo at 3:44 AM on October 3, 2007

This happened to me when I was eight and flew for my very first time. It lasted all through the night and sucked HARD.

The good news is, twenty years later I can still hear 8 kHz tones at the same level as 1 kHz tones.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:50 AM on October 3, 2007

No, you're not weird. Same thing happened to me when I had a cold and a completely blocked nose. Air pressure/sinus/brainy funny things are going on, and it's not fun. You have my sympathy.
posted by twirlypen at 4:08 AM on October 3, 2007

Happened to me first time I flew. Scared me half to death. I'm fine now. Happened to a friend, and she lost 10% hearing in that ear. So damage is possible.
posted by Leon at 4:49 AM on October 3, 2007

I get this every time I fly, although it usually resolves itself soon after landing. While in flight, I can't hear very much at all, and as the plane descends, my ears hurt a lot. (I have small ears to begin with, so that probably doesn't help.) It freaks me out every time, and all I can do is sip my drink (to swallow) and/or chew gum and hope for the best...
posted by limeonaire at 5:20 AM on October 3, 2007

I'm pretty sure my in-ear (isolation) earphones came with a warning to remove them before ascent/descent in an aircraft, so yeah, #2 could be a significant contributor to the problem.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:28 AM on October 3, 2007

This happened to when flying until I was about 13. Also occurred on liftoff sometimes. As others have mentioned, it sucks hardcore though I don't appear to be any worse for the tribulation. I'm still paranoid 12 years later that this pain's doing to rear its ugly head again.
For me, taking some Alieve cold and sinus, chewing gum, and yawning way too often helps. I'm stoked when I finally hear my ear grind and pop since it means I'm relieving that air pressure.

OTOH, my mom was feeling the same thing one flight, only hers turned out to be a busted ear drum. I wouldn't worry too much about it, but as with most things medical, you never know for sure.
posted by jmd82 at 5:32 AM on October 3, 2007

This happened to me and I couldn't hear right for about two weeks, but I am back to perfect!
posted by stormygrey at 5:47 AM on October 3, 2007

Okay honey... I am the POSTER CHILD for why flying with a cold is a horrible horrible thing to do. That experience has really become a big big problem in my life so please listen to me here. I am hoping that your problems will remain far smaller, but I will tell you about my experiences anyhow.

First off, people... NEVER EVER EVER FLY WITH A COLD. What happens is your eustachian tubes (the tubes between your nose and ears) get blocked, your ears can't pop which is how your body adjusts itself to altitude. So the pressure builds up inside of your head. IT'S VERY DANGEROUS. I am not at all even slightly kidding.

In 1988 I flew with a bad New England cold, and both of my eardrums hemmhorraged. It was the exact scenario you have. I was terrified, I didn't know what was wrong with me. I though I was going crazy and I was deaf for a day or so. It got better, but I lost some low tones and from that point on I had to ALWAYS take Sudafed before flying, to drink water during takeoffs and landings, and wear these.

What I developed is called eustachian tube dysfunction. It is simply impossible to equalize my ears, so I can never scuba dive and any kind of pressured air is like icepicks in my ears.

Unfortunateley over the years it's developed into a worse problem than just hemhorraged ears on a plane. Last year my left eardrum just plain ruptured on a bus ride for reasons that doctors still can't fathom, and because I was in a remote country it became infected and damaged my ear permanently. I was left with horrible tinnitis that has made my life more than a bit miserable at times. (Having a loud high pitched noise in your head 24/7 sucks rocks.) And I've had to have some ear surgery that's made the tinnitis even worse.

A "busted eardrum" IS something to worry about. You NEED your ears. Go to a good doctor. Get medication before your eardrum is infected. Take care of yourself NOW and hopefully, by the grace of God, this will be the end of it for you and you will not have to go through half of what I have.

posted by miss lynnster at 6:23 AM on October 3, 2007

posted by miss lynnster at 6:23 AM on October 3, 2007

Yea, this happens to me all the time. Basically, your ears are blocked because of sinus pressure. I've found that your ears blow "out" on the ascent, but then blow "in" on the descent.

I've had this problem for so long that I can control the pressure behind my ears just by yawning a certain way - no weird valasava thing.

Here's the good news: If the pain was still there, your ear drums didn't rupture. That happened to me once. You're on the descent, it hurts like hell, and then all of a sudden, you start feeling no pain, but pus starts flying out. Not a Good Thing.

It could take a while to clear out, depending on how bad your sinuses are. If it's been two weeks, that's a clear sign of infection, you should go to a doctor, he'll give you amoxicillin, and you can clean the sucker out.

If you want to avoid it in the future with the least amount of hassle, just take a sudafed or any other nasal decongestant, especially if you're flying with a cold.
posted by unexpected at 6:31 AM on October 3, 2007

Fun fact: This also happens if you fall asleep on car ride down from the mountains with a cold. You could freak out, I suppose, but of all the people answering, it seems only two have had anything bad happen, so, eh.
posted by dame at 6:42 AM on October 3, 2007

First off, people... NEVER EVER EVER FLY WITH A COLD. What happens is your eustachian tubes (the tubes between your nose and ears) get blocked, your ears can't pop which is how your body adjusts itself to altitude. So the pressure builds up inside of your head. IT'S VERY DANGEROUS. I am not at all even slightly kidding.

That's a bit scare-mongery, no? Yes, congestion does block the Eustachian tubes but rarely to the extent that your ear drums would burst. Having an ear infection, though, is a different matter -- I wouldn't fly without finishing a course of antibiotics first.

But regarding the original question, I wouldn't be overly worried. I recently got a middle-ear infection (no pain at all, my left ear just went deaf all of a sudden). Antibiotics cleared up the infection (luckily as if I'd left it, my eardrum would certainly have burst) but I'm still so congested even now, over a month later, that I still don't have my full hearing back. However, it's only a matter of time -- I went to my GP out of concern, but I was assured it's just a matter of waiting it out, and taking decongestants if they work for you.

Incidentally, I was on holiday when I got the infection; I flew home (long haul) with a congested head and had no problems at all. Go figure.
posted by macdara at 6:52 AM on October 3, 2007

This often has to do with the speed of descent. Here's a tip though: DO NOT sleep on the airplane and DO NOT drink on the airplane. Something about being unalert makes this a whole lot more likely to happen. I never had head/ear pain as a flight attendant because I was working and therefore always alert while as a passenger it happened to me a lot (even when I didn't have a cold) until I figured out how to prevent it.

One exception: On long international flights you can sleep once you reach cruising altitude, just make sure you wake yourself up thoroughly before descent.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:54 AM on October 3, 2007

Drink alcohol, I meant. Regular drinks are fine.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:55 AM on October 3, 2007

I'm sorry to sound scare mongery, but that advice is exactly what I was told. And I didn't follow it. And I will regret it forever. And that is something I am not exagerrating even a tiny smidgen.

Every day of my life I regret flying with that cold in 1988.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:09 AM on October 3, 2007

But on a good note... you are NOT going deaf. Just please go to the doctor.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:20 AM on October 3, 2007

I flew from LA to Dallas with a sinus infection exactly four years ago. The pain during descent was worse than the time I broke my arm playing football. I was basically deaf for about five days after that. Then the pain and hearing loss slowly went away. After about two weeks I was back to normal. Give it a few days and you will probably be fine.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 7:32 AM on October 3, 2007


I used to suffer from sinus problems which made airplane descents utterly agonising. The horrible stuffy pressure & deafness often lasted up to 2 - 3 days, gradually tapering back to normal. "Popping"my ears would help temporarily, also yawning, swallowing, sucking on lollies. Take a bag of something like butterscotch/toffees/eucalyptus lozenges with you to suck on during descents. If you don't feel that it's slowly improving or it lasts longer than a couple of days, seek medical attention.
posted by goshling at 7:43 AM on October 3, 2007

I used to have the same problem. It helped when I took a decongestant like Sudafed about 30 min before the flight.

yeaaaaaah Cornelius!!
posted by spec80 at 7:49 AM on October 3, 2007

Another data pont here... In 1978, I flew from New York to England. No problems. But when we took a small plane to Scotland, on descent, I experienced a terrible stabbing pain (again, "icepick in the ear" level) in one ear. Never happened again since. And I have flown a LOT - all types of places, distances, altitudes. And I'm almost always congested. So go figure.

But now that I've read miss lynster's posts, I plan to take sudafed before I fly from now on. (Thanks for scaring the snot out of my m.l.!)
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:56 AM on October 3, 2007

I have had this identical situation. For me it was a previously undetected ear infection that led to a ruptured eardrum from the pressure of descent.

I took antibiotics to clear the infection -- something-cillin -- can't remember what exactly. A few days of ear drops as prescribed in the ruptured ear. Hearing was back to normal in a few weeks. Doc also reccomended 4 over-the-counter strength Motrin twice daily (upon waking, and around dinner time) for pain.

A trip to the doc was necessary to get the scripts.
posted by chocolate_butch at 8:04 AM on October 3, 2007

I used to get this pretty frequently when flying, typically only on certain routes, which probably has something to do with the approach path and rate of descent to the destination airport or some such. Sometimes the muffled hearing and disorientation continues for a couple of days, or sometimes it's over in a few hours. I did have problems with middle ear infections as a child, and I suppose that it's all related in some manner. The Valsalva manouver, exercised frequently, would help abate a little pressure, but ultimately I'd still experience that blinding pain on descent, and the continued after-effects.

As mentioned above, nasal decongestant sprays work pretty well at keeping the tubes clean. On shorter flights, I just give myself a dose a half hour or so before boarding. On longer flights (e.g., 5 hours+, whatever is the recommended reapplication time), I'll take another dose an hour or so before landing. Or, yes, a Sudafed or some other cold/flu tablet works too. The down-side to this is that the nasal sprays and cold/flu tabs tend to over-stimulate me a bit too much, so can leave me feeling pretty exhausted by the end of the flight.

Recently, in Australia, I discovered a product called Fess Frequent Flyer, which is little more than a saline spray with a bit of tea tree oil or similar for perfume. Its main advertised benefits are to help you avoid catching colds, etc., while flying, and really, I have no idea (nor care) whether it's effective in that regard or not - what it does seem to do a really good job of is keeping my ear tubes open, but without the side-effects of the pharmaceuticals. When using either of these approaches, I also use the Valsalva manouver - it actually becomes effective, because it doesn't seem like my tubes are glued shut. I'm not certain whether there's a comparable product in the US or whether you could cook something similar up yourself. If you look around, you can find some places that are willing to ship to the US.

I'm not sure whether applying any of these techniques now will help you out or not, though some of the above links indicate that they might. So yeah, it's not uncommon to experience such things, though I'd be concerned if it doesn't go away in another day.
posted by bunyip at 8:11 AM on October 3, 2007

Er, sorry, to qualify my answer: using the saline spray is my helpful hint to others that regularly experience this problem without suffering from a cold or flu, and not directly addressing your situation. If one does have to fly with a cold, definitely take the decongestants!
posted by bunyip at 8:28 AM on October 3, 2007

You know how babies cry on planes a lot? It's because this is what they're experiencing. Their ears are a lot more sensitive to pressure changes, as are the ears of young children. It sucks.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:58 AM on October 3, 2007

To relieve ear pain in the meantime, grab a cup and put paper towels in the bottom. Pour a bit of hot water in there as well. Then rest your head on the cup, making a seal with your ear. It's a lot easier to have it set on a low table and to use a sturdy coffee mug.

Get better soon.
posted by idiotfactory at 9:13 AM on October 3, 2007

Everyone's mentioned antibiotics but I would recommend taking a decongestant. IANAD, but this is what my doctor told me to do even when I don't have a cold (I do have sinus problems every now and then). I would recommend you talk to a doctor about it.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:26 AM on October 3, 2007

I dive a LOT, so I am used to coddling my ears. If you have to fly with a cold, take lots of decongestant (Sudafed is sometimes called "diver's candy.") On ascent and descent, don't let the pressure build - it will be harder to relieve the worse the pressure difference gets. Use Valsalva every few minutes or yawn and wriggle your jaw back and forth. (I think yawning and wriggling works better when you're congested.) But if you use Valsalva too much, like every few seconds, it can actually irritate your Eustacian tubes make the problem worse - do it just enough to prevent pressure.

If you have stabbing pains or hearing loss that don't go away within a couple hours - SEE A DOCTOR. You could have a punctured eardrum. My SO got a minor puncture just from getting hit in the ear with a raquetball, but since I knew what to look for and made him go see an ENT right away, it healed up just fine.

DO NOT put ANYTHING in your ears if you suspect you might have a problem. You could do serious, permanent damage. No Q-tips and especially no rubbing alcohol (though that's more of a water sports thing.) I've heard, albeit not from a doctor, that rubbing alcohol can paralyze your facial nerves if you've got a punctured eardrum.

But don't worry. I abuse my ears terribly, between the diving and flying with colds (seem to always get sick on the flight out) and by taking these steps I have never had a problem.
posted by ilyanassa at 9:41 AM on October 3, 2007

Seconding decongestant. Benadryl is an antihistamine- good for allergies, not for nasty high-pressure head congestion. Take Sudafed or something else involving pseudoephedrine.
posted by moonlet at 9:43 AM on October 3, 2007

I had this happen to me, only from jumping out of a plane. If it doesn't go away in a few days, you might want to get swabbed for tonsilitis (you should be able to see whether your tonsils are huge and white too).

I ended up needing my tonsils out, and it sucked.
posted by klangklangston at 9:48 AM on October 3, 2007

Decongestant, the good stuff if you can get it. And anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen, not acetaminophen). Expectorant (Mucinex or other time-release) is also helpful but not as vital as the decongestant. It's pretty much the only time I'll take decongestants, because most of the time it's not doing you any favors, but it does clear out the ears.

Mine is so bad I often get terrible vertigo when I fly. I have to bomb myself with decongestants (I prefer 4-hour nasal spray for best effectiveness, but Sudafed is my Plan B) and advil starting about an hour before departure. I used to bring 2-3 large bottles of water with sports tops, because sucking on them helped.

Two years ago I flew home on a long flight after catching a cold 10 days before on the flight there. Unfortunately I used up all my good stuff being sick and did not have the resources to find what I needed in Shanghai before I left. Ruptured an eardrum on descent to Tokyo, which was just about the greatest relief I've ever felt, and had no problems on the next two legs of the flight. I didn't do any permanent damage, but it took about two months to heal and excavate all the aftermath out of there. Oddly, I haven't had vertigo on a flight since, though that may just mean I got my protocols down right.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:30 AM on October 3, 2007

It happened to me, too, and OUCH! And I was sort of deaf or hearing-impaired for a good while -- I would say a few weeks. But the good news is that it seemed to go away entirely. Anecdotal evidence only, but at least it's not guaranteed that you'll have the same trouble others have (poor miss lynnster).
posted by theredpen at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2007

Miss lynnster is completely correct.
posted by 6:1 at 12:56 PM on October 3, 2007

Oh my god, that was the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life. The only way to get some relief was to turn upside down and shake my head around. I don't know if it loosened up the gunk or what, but it helped. And LOTS of decongestant.

Man, that sucked.
posted by pyjammy at 1:24 PM on October 3, 2007

Everyone's mentioned antibiotics but I would recommend taking a decongestant. IANAD, but this is what my doctor told me to do even when I don't have a cold (I do have sinus problems every now and then). I would recommend you talk to a doctor about it.

I only mentioned antibiotics in my own case because I had an actual infection -- it would clearly be ridiculous to take antibiotics just for congestion! Don't do that, people.

The nasal decongestant is a very good idea (except if you're flying to Japan, as I hear they're illegal there without a prescription). I used a nasal spray (Otrivine/Otravine) when I was flying with my cold, to avoid discomfort more than anything else; the air is so bad, especially on long-haul flights. If you find that pills do little for you (I'm pretty much immune to pseudoephedrine) the spray is a better option.
posted by macdara at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2007

Definitely take Sudafed if you're flying with a cold (note: get the real kind, with pseudoephedrine, which is usually sold behind the pharmacy counter nowadays, not the other decongestant that's now also sold under the Sudafed brand name). I did once have a very unpleasant clogged ear that took a few days to clear up when I flew with a cold, but I hadn't taken Sudafed. With the Sudafed, I've never had problems. And I think Sudafed may work better for this than nasal sprays, because nasal sprays mostly affect the stuff that the spray hits (namely your nasal passages), but what you realy want to keep open is your Eustachian tubes.
posted by klausness at 4:10 PM on October 3, 2007

nthing Sudafed.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:42 PM on October 3, 2007

If you’re sick and need to fly, you should give at least a passing thought to not passing it around to everyone else on the plane.
posted by Huplescat at 6:01 PM on October 3, 2007

Oh, screw those meaningless strangers. Just don't fuck up your ears, for God's sake. :)
posted by miss lynnster at 7:43 PM on October 3, 2007

Can't believe no one has mentioned the possiblity of simple wax buildup yet. If sticking your finger in your ear (changing the shape of the ear canal) lets you temporarily hear a little, it might be that the in-ear phones helped push your natural wax into your ear canal, forming a minor blockage. In other words, it's possible this happened only coincidentally and is not related to your cold -- especially if it's happening in one ear and not in the other, and especially if you use decongestant and start to feel better but things still sound weird in that ear.

If it's a wax plug, then some Murine drops ($7 or so at the drugstore -- this is a time when getting name brand actually matters, Murine is definitely best) will probably dissolve it. The Murine will tickle/fizz and the trick is to just leave it in your ear until it stops fizzing (may take a long time, so settle on your side and read or watch a video).

If you do go to the doctor, s/he will look in your ear and, if there is a wax plug, it can be washed out by a high-pressure water system in the office. Try Murine first!
posted by sparrows at 11:59 PM on October 3, 2007

Since you mentioned that you couldn't equalize the pressure on your descent it's possible that one or both of your eustachian tubes are blocked. If that's the case a doctor should be able to prescribe you some (corticosteroid) nasal spray that should reduce any inflammation and help them get back to normal.
posted by benign at 9:23 AM on October 5, 2007

Response by poster: Conclusion:

It got better on its own about 2 weeks out. No permanent damage from what I can tell. Though I go through an extensive unclogging now before I fly, and I remove the headphones to be on the safe side.

Thanks metafilter!
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 8:01 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Awesome! That's always cool when someone updates their question months later.
posted by tinkertown at 12:28 PM on July 10, 2008

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