How to Avoid Ear Pain During Flight for Babies and Kids? What to do?

Last Updated on 3 August 2022 by Dott. Sandro Cantoni

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Many parents who travel with their infants by flight are always worried if their children will be able to sustain the airplane trip. The worry comes about because of the infants experiencing ear pain.

According to research, about 25 to 55% of children experience ear pains during flights and mostly during landing. Many children feel a weird ear-popping sensation and it can feel so odd and even scary at first. But this is a common feeling during flight. So, why do we experience ear pain when flying?

Why do baby’s ears hurt when flying?

Most babies and children experience an ear-popping sensation when they fly. This uncomfortable sensation is often related to pressure changes in the atmosphere in the middle ear. 

The Eustachian tube is a duct that connects the middle ear, the part behind the eardrum, to the pharynx, the back of the throat. 

Usually, the Eustachian tube equalizes air pressure in the middle ear to the outside air pressure by opening and allowing air to reach the middle ear. So, when you feel the ears popping while yawning or swallowing, the Eustachian tubes normally adjust air pressure in the middle ears.

Kids have relatively narrow Eustachian tubes, which might not balance air pressure as required, especially if they have a mucus clog. Or if the Eustachian tube is sore, perhaps from a typical upper airway virus. 

If you fly or climb a mountain, air pressure tends to decrease as you go higher and increase when you go lower. If the pressure does not balance, the higher air pressure is pushed to one side of the eardrum, causing pain. This imbalance in air pressure causes babies to cry during the last few minutes of flying, the landing. 

This pain caused by pressure imbalance is usually temporary. It doesn’t cause any long-term problems for children. After a few minutes, the pain goes down as the Eustachian tubes open up to allow the air pressure to balance both eardrums.

That’s why the problem is bigger if the child has otitis media. 

In this case, there is already an inflammation of the eardrum, which is very sensitive, with mucus inside the middle ear. The eustachian tube is also inflamed, which makes balancing pressures even more difficult. 

Therefore, it is more likely that the child will have ear pain during the airplane flight. 

Why Kids Experience more Ear Pain when Flying Compared to Adults

  • Children always experience more colds and respiratory infections, making them more vulnerable.
  • Children have extra tissue in the adenoids. Adenoids are found in the back of the throats, and they can cause ears to block.
  • Unlike adults, babies and small toddlers cannot yawn or swallow on command.
  • Unlike adults, the Eustachian tubes in babies’ ears are straight and do not curve downward.

How to know if a baby or child has ear pain during a flight. Symptoms of Mild Ear Pain

When your baby experiences the following symptoms during flight, it will help you know that your baby is experiencing mild ear pain.

  • The child tells you that his ear is “plugged” as if he has something in it. 
  • The baby or toddler starts crying and touches his ear. 
  • Or the baby is irritable, doesn’t want to play, doesn’t laugh, doesn’t want to eat. 
  • The child doesn’t seem to hear when you talk to him. 
  • In some rare cases, the child cries, and fluid comes out of the ear. There has been a perforation of the eardrum.

How to Prevent Baby Ear Pain during Flights

  • If possible, avoid airplane travel if your baby has any upper respiratory infections or cold symptoms.
  • You can give your baby a pacifier or a bottle to drink during takeoff or landing. If your child is older, you can give him sugar-free gum and teach him to yawn and swallow. This allows your child’s eustachian tube to balance the pressure on the eardrum membrane.
  • If the child has a sensation that the ear is full during take-off or landing, give the baby a bottle of water to drink.
  • If the baby has cold symptoms or upper respiratory infection and you cannot cancel the flight, make sure that you have enough fluids for the baby to drink.
  • If you are traveling with older children and they cannot hear when you talk to them, encourage them to chew gum, swallow or yawn four times during take-off and when landing.
  • Be keen to wake up the baby when sleeping during take-off or landing. This minimizes the pain level as it could worsen if they continue sleeping.
  • Remember to carry a bulb syringe to clear out the baby’s nose when it gets congested.
  • If the baby has any cold or upper respiratory infection, treat the symptoms earlier before your travel. This will help you avoid any ear pain. 
  • If your child has symptoms of a cold or upper respiratory tract infection make sure you have enough fluids to drink. Give him a drink a few minutes before takeoff or landing. 
  • If your child has a cold, it is best to have a clear nose at the time of the flight. Then you can give nasal washes with physiological saline, suck out the mucus with a bulb and maybe give a nasal decongestant, all half an hour before take-off and also before landing. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist first to find out which product is best for your child.
  • Use medications only in one condition. If the child has an ear infection and complains during the flight. Then you can give paracetamol or ibuprofen, preferably at least half an hour before landing, which is always the most critical time. And also follow the advice I mentioned above. 
  • One more suggestion. Parents are often happy that the child is sleeping during the flight. But if he is sleeping even during the preparation for landing, then it is very likely that he will have an earache. You reduce the risk by waking the baby up and giving him a pacifier or something to drink. 

If your child has an earache during flight, how can you reduce the pain?

  • You do the same things I mentioned above because the goal is to balance the pressures of the eardrum membrane. 
  • If it feels like your baby is in pain or discomfort, such as the infant crying or the baby tells you he feels his ear is plugged, give him something to drink right away, either a glass of water or a bottle of water or water milk. Or give the pacifier. When your child swallows, it creates a pressure balance in the eardrum, and this should make the pain go away.
  • It is not very helpful to give pain medications because these begin to take effect after about 30-40 minutes. 

My child has an ear infection. Can he fly? 

It is often not possible to reschedule an already booked travel by air. However, you should know that if your child has an ear infection, the pain risk during the flight increases. 

In this case, I recommend giving your child an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, one hour before take-off. Then, before landing, you can administer acetaminophen. 

In addition to the measures described above. 

Conclusion

When you practice patience and take simple precautions, you can make your next flight less painful and more comfortable for your baby or child. The most important thing to remember is to give him a drink often or use a pacifier to balance the pressures of the eardrum membrane.

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About the author

Hi. My name is Sandro Cantoni. I’m a Pediatrician. I work in the General Pediatric Clinic. Hospital of Neuchatel, Switzerland.

References

Wright T. Middle-ear pain and trauma during air travel. BMJ Clin Evid. 2015 Jan 19.

Buchanan BJ, Hoagland J, Fischer PR. Pseudoephedrine and air travel-associated ear pain in children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1999 May;153(5):466-8.

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