Going on holiday? Here’s how to deal with the aches and pains of a long flight
Many people love flights - others suffer from airplane headaches, or barosinusitis, which can cause intense pain and lingering discomfort.
End-of-the-year vacation is something we look forward to all year long. But even when it’s within reach, there are a few stressful travel hang-ups to deal with. A major one being the actual travel itself.
Many people love flights - others suffer from airplane headaches, or barosinusitis, which can cause intense pain and lingering discomfort. Cold symptoms or upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) increase the likelihood of getting airplane headaches. Barosinusitis is caused by pressure differentials in the paranasal sinuses, which are air-filled cavities present around the nose.
Cause of airplane headaches
Boyle’s Law explains what goes on this situation best: at a constant temperature, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure placed upon it. Let’s examine this in the current context.
As the plane ascends, the pressure in the cabin drops. The air in the sinus expands. Conversely, during descent, external pressure increases and the air in the sinus contracts and moves out to the nasal cavity. However, when a person is infected with a cold, this air would not be able to pass through the nose because of tissue oedema (swelling) and mucus blocking the sinus.
Until the pressure differential is not normalized, there will be a pain across the sinuses leading to headaches. The aches should pass on landing. In more severe cases, headaches last for days and there may even be nosebleeds.
Prevention and management of airplane headaches
Treatment is based on pain management. It might be a good idea to take a mild painkiller an hour before boarding to mitigate the discomfort of the headache. Otherwise, if you notice the onset of symptoms, you can take the pill right then as well.
Decongestants can help unclog the sinuses and relieve symptoms as well. Both oral and topical variants work.
Causes of airplane ear
A similar condition, airplane ear or ear barotrauma, is also caused by rapid pressure changes when flying. The eustachian tube regulates the pressure in the middle ear, but during ascent or descent, it may not be able to regulate it fast enough. This will cause the eardrum to vibrate abnormally and cause moderate to severe pain. Colds and sinus infections are again associated with airplane ear and can make it much worse.
Prevention and management of airplane ear
Unlike airplane headaches, there are some steps that can be taken to help deal with the pain of aeroplane ear.
- Yawn and swallow during ascent or descent. The movements spur the eustachian tube into action and can help equalize pressure. Chewing gum comes in handy here.
- The Valsalva manoeuvre: Pinch your nostrils, close your mouth and then attempt to gently blow out air. Repeat this several times to ‘pop’ your ears.
- Decongestants, allergy pills and nasal sprays before the flight can also help by subduing the symptoms of a cold.
We hope this travel season is relatively pain-free for you!
For more information, please read our article on Headache: Types, Symptoms, Causes and Prevention.
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