On Call: Flying Pains
Q. Whenever we fly, my 4-year-old gets congested, and on occasion develops a headache, ear infection, and fever. How can we prevent this on future trips?
A. The changes in air pressure during a flight, along with the dry air in planes, can cause nasal congestion and a buildup of fluid in one or both eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear with the back of the nose and keep the pressure on both sides of the eardrum the same. When a tube gets blocked (by allergies, a cold, or congestion in the nose) or when it can't keep up with pressure changes (like when a plane is going up or coming down), there's a buildup of fluid there. This is why people's ears feel stuffed up while flying -- and why your child gets infections afterward.
To make flying less painful for your little jet-setter:
Have her drink plenty of fluids to keep her nasal passages moist.
Remember that swallowing and yawning help open the eustachian tubes. Try giving her a drink during takeoff and landing, playing a yawning game, or having her chew gum (sugarless, of course!).
If her ears feel clogged, teach her how to equalize the pressure herself by holding her nose, filling her cheeks up with air, and then trying to blow out through her nose (just until she feels her ears pop -- doing this too forcefully can be harmful).
Try to keep her awake during take-off and landing; she won't swallow as often if she's asleep.
Nasal sprays or oral decongestants can also be helpful, but only with your pediatrician's okay.