Find out why air travel can be so painful for kids, and whether or not flying with a cold or ear infection poses a health hazard. Doc Holiday shares advice on how to eliminate ear pain.
True ear infections (otitis media) and colds are frequent occurrences in young children, so parents often ask about the safety of flying with one of these ailments.
There is much debate amongst physicians. Some advise against air travel only when tiny air bubbles are seen behind the ear drum, indicating a partially resolved ear infection. Some doctors believe that an acute ear infection (with infected fluid filling the middle ear canal) actually protects a child against pressure changes that can be transmitted to the normal air-filled middle ear chamber. If your child has functioning ear drainage tubes, it is okay to fly; if it's an acute ear infection with perforation of the eardrum, it is probably okay as well. Even an external ear infection (swimmer's ear) is not adversely affected by flying.
If your child has a cold without an ear infection, take these precautions: Be sure she swallows (infants can be nursed or bottle-fed) during ascent and, more importantly, during descent. An oral decongestant taken about one hour before take-off and upon beginning to land can be quite effective for children over 1 year. (At least four hours should elapse between successive doses.) Older children can use nasal decongestant drops one hour prior to landing. If ear pain occurs, Tylenol can be soothing but topical anesthetic ear drops will be of little benefit. Remember that decongestants and OTC cold remedies can make a child more active during a flight. Always consult a physician before administering decongestants; never try them for the first time during air travel. If a young frequent flyer has a history of ear pain, consult an ENT physician. Specially fitted non-surgical ear tubes, applied externally, can minimize middle ear pressure changes to make flying less painful.
[Editor's Note: FTF members recommend EarPlanes by Travel Smart (800/EAR-6151), a ribbed plastic ear plug that regulates air pressure to eliminate ear pain. They're sold at Duane Reade in the US and Boots in the UK in two sizes (1-11 years and 12+) for about $5/pair.]
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