Tips for Flying with a Head Cold & The One Product You Must Have

Deb Steenhagen Avatar

Sick woman in bed
Feeling under the weather? Flying might not be a great idea. Photo credit: Stock Unlimited

If you’re due to fly and have a head cold you may be overwhelmed. Altitude changes, air pressure and sniffles can make air travel unbearable. It’s important to know what you can do to make flying with a cold easier to handle. With the use of some over-the-counter medications and special earplugs to stop the pain, you can fly. Here are our best tips for flying with a head cold.

How to Survive Flying with a Head Cold

These days, any time you are out in public with a runny nose or cough, someone is likely to give you a sideways glance. And you are likely to respond, “It’s just a cold.”

But the reality is that sometimes we all have to travel, even with a cold. These tips and advice are aimed at helping you get through the flight with the least amount of discomfort. And, we hope, you’ll wear a mask and do everything you can to keep from coughing and sneezing on your fellow passengers and the flight attendants.

Read More: 7 Things Not to Do on a Plane If You Don’t Want to Get Sick

Do I Have to Travel?

This is always the first question I ask myself.

The cabin pressure changes caused by air travel are uncomfortable, yes. And I certainly didn’t want to spread germs to any other passengers stuck near me in the airplane cabin for hours. Make sure to bring a mask or two along to keep your germs to yourself.

However, plans can’t always be put on hold and airline tickets are expensive. The last time I had to fly with a head cold, my plane ticket was nonrefundable. If you don’t have travel insurance, cost is definitely a consideration.

In this particular case, I had what was most likely a common cold with a sore throat. My symptoms were annoying, but not critical. And it was before we ever heard the word “coronavirus” so I wasn’t worried about that!

If I had a severe cold, fever, difficulty breathing, ear infection or serious sinus infection, I would definitely re-assess the need to fly.

Why Do Your Ears Hurt When You Fly Sick?

According to health experts, the pressure in your sinuses and middle ear should be at the same pressure as the outside air. When you’re in an airplane and it takes off or starts to land, the external cabin air pressure changes more rapidly than your internal air pressure. That’s what causes the ear pain.

If you aren’t sure whether you should be flying with a cold, get medical advice to determine your best options based on your own cold symptoms.

Sick woman sneezing into a tissue. Flying with a head cold is never fun.
Flying with a head cold is never fun. Photo credit: Pixabay

Tips for Flying with a Head Cold

When your mucus membranes are inflamed from a head cold, the cabin pressure can be even harder to deal with.

Since I really needed to get on that airplane, I did some crowdsourcing and research to see what I could learn about how to keep my nasal passages and ears clear for the flights. What I learned was also confirmed by a visit to our local pharmacist when I went to stock up on cold medicines.

Note: I’m not a doctor so I definitely recommend checking with whatever medical professional you trust before you try any of these tips for flying with a head cold.

What Worked for Me

  • I took a decongestant at least an hour before the flight. It helped keep my head from feeling like it was going to explode. The one I used was a 12-hour decongestant, so I didn’t have to re-take it during the flight. The decongestant brand most recommended is Sudafed.
  • An antihistamine also helped dry up my still runny nose. I also made sure to have plenty of tissues on hand. Bring a plastic baggie for the used tissues. Airplane seats don’t have handy garbage receptacles and I didn’t want to leave them lying around or tucked into the backseat pocket, one of the germiest places on a plane.
  • Another option is to try a nasal spray (such as Afrin) to shrink the nasal passages. When those are swollen, the eustachian tubes in your ears can become clogged. This makes it harder for your ears to pop and equalize the pressure between your inner ear and the cabin air. In a worst-case scenario, you could end up with ears plugged for days, temporary hearing loss or even a ruptured eardrum.
  • Chewing gum, sucking lozenges or drinking water or other liquids can help. Before and during the trip, I drank plenty of fluids, took Vitamin C and rested as best as I could. Flying may be stressful and uncomfortable in some ways, but it does force you to rest, at least physically. I made sure I had a refillable water bottle so I could fill up after passing through security. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the flight attendants to bring me water – or have an uncovered glass of water on my tray with a squirmy 5-year-old in the seat next to me.
Sick woman coughing
Feeling the pressure, don’t worry. There are plenty of tips for flying with a head cold. Photo credit: Stock Unlimited

The Must-Have Product to Avoid Ear Pain

Per a friend’s suggestion, I invested in a pair of Ear Planes. This earplug is made specifically for people flying with sensitive ears, or who have a cold, sinus problems or allergies. I do think these made the biggest difference in my case. It was a relief to not feel the pressure in my head at all or have to constantly try to get my ears to pop to relieve it.

I used the Ear Planes during both takeoffs and landings. I took them out in between since they did get uncomfortable after a while. And while it was definitely not the best way to travel with a preschooler (since they do also act as noise suppression earplugs), I felt that the pressure and pain-free flights were definitely worth it.

There’s a pediatric version for kids – something I was glad not to have to use this time around!

Travel Tips for Flying with a Sick Child

SheBuysTravel Editor Cindy Richards likes to tell the story of being on a flight with a baby who was crying in agony. After a few minutes, someone called out, “Give that baby a bottle!” The distraught mom answered, “She won’t take a bottle.” At that, another passenger yelled, “Then give her a boob. That baby is in pain!”

And flying can be a painful experience for little ears. Here’s what medical experts recommend:

  • See your pediatrician before taking a sick child on an airplane.
  • Bring along age-appropriate items to help equalize pressure in your child’s ears and sinuses. That could mean a bottle, lollipops, gum or, in some cases, a cover-up for mom so she can give the baby a boob.
  • Give the kids lots of water to keep them hydrated, which is always a challenge in the dry cabin air. Think about bringing fun flavor packets or a cool water bottle to make hydrating more appealing to your kiddo.
  • Know where the nearest hospital is at your destination. This is always good advice,  even if no one falls ill.

Read More: 15 Tips for Flying with a Baby

Getting better

Thankfully I felt better by the time I headed home, so I did not need to use the Earplugs after takeoff. Within a couple of days after we got home, I was back to my usual self.

These are just general tips – again, please make sure that you talk to your doctor or another trusted medical professional before you fly with any kind of cold, allergy or sinus condition.

Try to make sure to eat and drink enough healthy foods and get lots of rest so that you can build your immune system and avoid getting sick in the first place!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Can I fly with a head cold?

A: Yes, you can fly with a head cold, but it may be uncomfortable. The changes in air pressure can cause sinus pain and ear pressure, so it’s important to take steps to alleviate these symptoms.

Q: What can I do to reduce sinus pain during a flight?

A: There are several things you can do to reduce sinus pain during a flight. You can take over-the-counter pain relievers, use a saline nasal spray or use a decongestant. It’s also a good idea to stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can dehydrate you.

Q: Will wearing earplugs help with ear pressure during a flight?

A: Yes, wearing earplugs can help with ear pressure during a flight. There are special earplugs designed for air travel that can help regulate air pressure and reduce discomfort.

Q: What is the one product I must have when flying with a head cold?

A: The one product you must have when flying with a head cold is a nasal decongestant spray. This can help relieve congestion and reduce sinus pain during the flight. Be sure to check with your doctor before using any new medications.

Q: Should I avoid flying if I have a head cold?

A: If possible, it’s best to avoid flying if you have a head cold. However, if you must fly, take steps to reduce your symptoms and make the flight as comfortable as possible. Consider rescheduling your flight if you’re feeling very ill.

Deb Steenhagen Avatar
Deb is Director of Operations for and the mom of 3 teenagers and young adults. She lives in the greater Grand Rapids area in West Michigan, and is a former city planner and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Analyst who loves gadgets, maps, writing, and traveling both within and outside of Michigan. She also enjoys reading, sewing, running and knitting.
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11 responses

  1. You all are talking about ear PLUGS I assume….

    1. Ear Planes are a brand of ear plug that regulates pressure change in your ear. They work great, are reusable and inexpensive.

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  8. Ear Planes are the best. Never fly without them after a bad flight with a sinus infection left me super sensitive.
    Good common sense advice. Thank you.

  9. Glad to hear the Ear Planes helped – they have saved me on a couple of flights! 🙂

    1. Thank you for this – I have to fly this week and not yet free of my cold, fingers crossed that this will help!