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Hack your flight: How to save your ears while flying with a cold

flying with a cold
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Air travel sucks.  It’s bad for you on just about every level.  Flying messes with your circadian rhythms as you shift time zones, increases stress hormones, is uncomfortable, and raises your risk of blood clots.  It’s also dehydrating and your risk of getting sick from flying is actually pretty high.  Because air gets filtered from the front of the plane to the back, your risk is even higher in economy class.  Flying with a cold can even cost you your hearing.  Here’s what to do:

Business travel is something lots of us have to contend with (at least some of the time).  It used to be a major concern for me – a single flight would often result in a sinus infection that lingered for a couple weeks, and I’d experience terrible sinus pain from the pressure changes.  Even worse, I came close to rupturing my eardrums more than once.  Two of my friends suffered partial hearing loss when their ear drums burst from pressure changes of flying with sinus congestion.  I fixed my sinus problems – without surgery – by hacking my health, so I don’t get sick when I fly very much anymore, but I always carry 3 things in my travel bag just in case.  After a smoke-filled week with dry desert and hotel air at a conference in Las Vegas, I almost always use these.

Here is what you can use to prevent the pain and possible hearing loss from flying with a cold:

flying with a coldAlmost every drug store carries a special kind of earplug called “Earplanes”.  They are pressure-relieving earplugs made of silicon baffles with a small ceramic plug in the middle.  The plug moves very slowly with a pressure change, giving your sinuses and eardrums time to adjust.  Put them in before the airplane doors close and the pressurization begins.  You can take the plugs out when at max altitude, but put them in again (important) before the plane starts descending.  You will still feel some sinus pain/pressure, but it won’t be nearly as bad, and the ceramic plug will keep your eardrums from bursting.  Earplanes are tiny and come in a little plastic box.  Mine sit in the bottom of my travel backpack.  If you find yourself on the road, this is the best $5 you’ll ever spend.


Mucinex flying with a coldis a brand of guaifenisin expectorant.  It liquefies your mucus so that it won’t block your ears.  It has no effect on your mental alertness like normal cold medications.  I take a Mucinex a half hour before flying unless my sinuses are perfectly clear.  If I’m flying with a cold, I take two with a big glass of water.  It reduces pain and risk substantially.


flying with a coldAfrin nasal spray will dramatically shrink sinus tissues in 2 minutes.  If I’m congested, I use it before takeoff and landing. If my ears are *really* clogged, I tilt my head back and squirt it from an upside down bottle making for a much higher dose that works faster but can by drying.


You might consider using a safe, non-addictive nasal spray called Xlear to prevent sinus problems in the first place.  It uses a sugar alcohol called xylitol to keep bacteria from sticking to your sinuses.


Learn More About Hacking Your Flights:

How I Killed Jet Lag and Got More REM Sleep Too

Video: Oxygen & Airplanes at Quantified Self


Happy flights! :)



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Post date: January 21, 2011
  • Pingback: Tips on How to Save your Ears when Flying with a Cold | Travel Hacking Blog

  • Marcus


    What do you recommend in general for getting over a cold as fast as possible? Obviously lots of sleep is good. But should you eat less to give you body a break or continue eating lots of bulletproof meals to get your body the nutrients it needs?

    Any medicine that doesn’t just suppress the symptoms but actually helps the underlying problem?

    Should you double up on supplements like magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin D?

    Hot bath or cold bath?

    Any extra supplements to take?

    Your opinion is greatly appreciated!

    • Dave Asprey

      Lots of vitamin C up to bowel tolerance and liposomal glutathione…

      Sent from my nobile device’s tiny little keyboard

      • S.

        Would fasting or rapid fat loss program aggravate the cold recovery? Would love to hear your thoughts.

      • DawnrazorDCLXVI

        Same question, I cannot use a neti due to a hole in my septum, but I have had a sinus infection congealed near my ears for 4 1/2 years. Doctors seem unable to find it, yet every month culture me with a new bacteria. Worse, it impedes my breathing, and had de-synchronized my breath from my heartbeat–feel like I’m having an Out-of-Body experience. Tried everything, which led me to this site! I am still spitting up blood, and suction traps food in my throat when I try to eat. I have related this to every doctor I know, without success!

  • Napos

    What a great post and advice. About to leave on a 10 hr flight with a raging cold.

    • Ana

      did it work because in 2 day i have to take a flight and i just got sick with a Bad cold

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  • Riona Daidouji

    Oh man, I wish I would have read this article a couple of years ago! I’d started a cold during the end of a trip, and the flight wasn’t direct, so we had to take 4 planes each way. Quite literally the most painful day of my life, and an awful way to end a vacation.

    • bella

      This same thing happened to me last year. Now I’m sick again and flying on a 6 hr flight tomorrow. I’m so thankful for this post.

  • Alia

    I had the same problem. One time I was taking a trip to Notth Carolina from up north and I felt a little congested and on the first plane nothing happened but after the layover and we went on the second plane when we descended I had massive pain in my ears, so bad I was crying and I felt dissy and I felt like my ear was going to explode! I was so nervous to go back home after the whole trip, mind you I had to deal with pain and blocked ears the rest if my trip. I took medicine but it didn’t really help. On the way back home was the worst the pain got even worse and I was about to jump out the plane window. Worst expirence ever, I’m so afraid to ride planes now…

  • kchristieh

    Thank you so much. I have a really bad cold, but by following these tips yesterday I not only didn’t suffer any ear damage, but I didn’t cough or sneeze on my fellow passengers.

    • Alternatives

      Unless both your arms are amputated, I don’t see why not following these tips would cause you to cough or sneeze on your fellow passengers. That’s what the inside of your elbow is for. Or if you really did care about your fellow passengers, you could have simply worn one of those blue face masks they freely hand out to visitors in hospitals.

  • Edgar Perez

    Thanks. Your post saved my flight.

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  • Aaron D. Campbell

    I had this happen just last week. I had to take two planes to Boston. The first was fine (ears were plugged and didn’t clear as quick as normal, but no pain). The second though, caused pretty severe pain. It started after reaching altitude and built. After landing it was really intense. While in Boston I did some quick searching and found this article (I did NOT want to go through the same pain on the return trip).

    I can’t stand nasal spray, so that was out for me. I bought Mucinex and took it before the trip. I also tried to get the ear planes, but could only find them in child size (which is also for small ears). I bought a pair anyway.

    To make a long story short, it worked…mostly. I had the same basic symptoms, plugged ears for the first flight and pain for the second, but it was MUCH less severe. Thank you so much for the info, it really made my life so much better!

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