The United States is the second-largest commercial airline market in the world, with millions of Americans flying to domestic and international destinations each year. Air travel comfort and safety levels have substantially improved over the decades, but for many people, the thought of flying is still rather unpleasant.
Leaving aside the fear of flight (aerophobia), physical problems, such as increased sinus pressure, headache, and discomfort in the ears, are common pain points for many airline passengers. This unique condition is clinically known as aerosinusitis.
What is aerosinusitis and why does it affect only some people? Is there any way to prevent or reduce the symptoms of increased sinus pressure while flying? Find the answers to all these questions and more in this guide.
What Is Aerosinusitis or Sinus Pressure Airplane Disorder?
There is a network of hollow cavities inside our skulls, spreading outwards from our noses into the cheeks and above the eyebrows. These spaces inside and around your nose are called sinuses. Usually empty when we are in good health, sinuses are lined with soft tissue called the mucosa. Aerosinusitis, also called barosinusitis or sinus barotrauma, is a painful condition commonly experienced by people flying in airplanes.
When it happens, you may feel pain or increased pressure in the following regions where nasal passages/cavities exist – around your nose, eyebrows, forehead, cheeks, ears, and behind your eyes. The severity of this disorder can range from mild irritation to unbearable sinus pain and discomfort. People suffering from this condition may feel increased pain or pressure if they move their head or bend their face toward the floor.
What Causes Sinus Pain While Flying?
The phenomena of atmospheric pressure is behind aerosinusitis. In the air, pressure levels change with altitude – at higher altitudes, the air pressure decreases. The pressure inside an airplane (cabin pressure) is usually regulated and kept at a stable and comfortable level.
However, when an airplane is ascending or descending (during take-off and landing, or in mid-air), the pressure difference can be felt for a short while inside the cabin as well. This sudden change in ambient pressure is the trigger for sinus pain and discomfort.
The sinuses are connected to the ears and the nose – openings in our body that can be affected by changes in air pressure. When they are healthy and clear, the changes in air pressure do not cause any major symptoms – except maybe a mild feeling of dizziness.
When the sinuses are inflamed due to infection or other conditions, even the slightest change in air pressure can lead to intense sinus pain and a feeling of heavy pressure around your face.
The most common cause is chronic sinusitis, which can occur in people of all ages. Other health conditions that can cause sinus pain while flying include ear infections, blocked/runny nose, polyps/obstructions in the nasal cavity, the common cold, and the flu.
When you suffer from an infection, your sinuses are blocked due to the swelling of the sensitive mucosal lining. When there is a change in the air pressure outside our body, it can lead to an expansion or contraction of the air inside the passages.
In a healthy person, clear and open sinuses allow the air to regulate itself, either by flowing out or bringing in more air from the outside, as and when necessary.
But if they are inflamed and blocked, the changes in air pressure lead to one of two things:
- A squeezing effect: The trapped air inside the sinuses contract, leading to a build-up of negative pressure inside. The nasal passages are often filled with blood or mucus. This kind of pain occurs when the airplane is descending.
- A reverse squeezing effect: The trapped air expands inside the sinuses, exerting pressure on the sensitive tissue lining the sinus walls. This kind of sinus pain occurs when the flight is ascending. It can lead to nosebleeds or epistaxis.
In both situations, the pressure can cause intense sinus pain and bleeding out of the nostrils.
If you are constantly suffering from sinus pain while flying, you might be able to put an end to this suffering by consulting a skilled ENT specialist for a diagnosis.
The Link Between Sinusitis and Sinus Pain While Flying
Sinusitis is an inflammation of the mucosal lining inside the nasal cavity. To stay healthy and clear, sinuses have to regularly flush out the fluid, dirt, and waste that accumulate there during our breathing. The junk is removed via the osteo-meatal complex (OMC).
The OMC is a junction inside the nose where three main sinus cavities all converge and drain down into the back of your throat. The growth of bacteria or other germs can often lead to inflammation and sudden blockage of this area (acute sinusitis/sinus infection).
A weak immune system can increase the frequency of such infections. Allergies and non-cancerous growths called nasal polyps can also cause more permanent/worse blockage of the sinuses, leading to recurrent or chronic sinusitis.
These conditions are associated with debilitating symptoms like a poor sense of smell, facial pain, recurring headaches, low-grade fever, difficulty in breathing, and sleep apnea. If you don’t get it treated, sinusitis can increase the risk of discomfort and sinus pain while flying.
Chronic sinusitis usually requires diagnosis and treatment by ear/nose/throat specialists. ENT doctors might recommend treatments that include anti-allergy medication, nasal sprays, and surgical procedures like balloon sinuplasty.
How to Prevent Sinus Pain While Flying?
For short-term relief from sinus pressure, ENT experts recommend a few precautions that you can take in the days before the flight or during the flight itself. They include:
Chewing Gum & Drinking Water
The motion of your jaw while chewing can help relieve the air pressure inside your sinuses. Sipping water during take-off and landing can also help, as the swallowing mechanism reduces sinus pressure while flying. Plus, it helps to remain hydrated.
Saline nasal irrigation is often recommended by ENT doctors to patients as part of treatment for chronic sinus inflammation. The saline rinse can help keep your sinuses clear of any mucus/blockage and make it much easier to breathe as well.
If you have booked a flight in advance and are experiencing sinus pain, you can try nasal irrigation for 7–10 days before the day of the journey to prevent sinus pain during the flight.
On the other hand, if you have chronic/severe sinus issues, it is best to do this only after asking the opinion of an ear/nose doctor.
Decongestants and Nasal Sprays
Over-the-counter ENT medications like decongestants and nasal sprays can help reduce the congestion inside your sinuses. However, like with nasal rinse, you have to use these for at least a few days prior to your flight for any palpable relief from a congested nose.
Consult an ENT Doctor at the Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists to Get Expert Treatment for Your Aerosinusitis
If you are suffering from chronic sinusitis or other ear/nose conditions, you may not get long-term relief with home remedies. Only a qualified and experienced ENT specialist can provide a more permanent solution by treating the underlying cause of your sinus problems.
With accurate diagnosis and maintenance therapies from our highly experienced ENT specialists, you can reduce the severity of allergies, nasal polyps, and sinusitis, and drastically improve your ability to breathe and overall health and quality of life.
At the Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists, we have highly rated ENT specialists and in-house capabilities to treat all types of ear, nose, and sinus conditions through procedures like balloon sinuplasty. You will also find a dedicated department to treat all forms of sinus allergies!
To book a consultation with an ENT specialist, give us a call today at 954-983-1211.