29 July 2017

Is flying with sinusitis dangerous?

If you suffer from sinusitis, flying should pose no risk to your health. Here are ways to make your trip as comfortable as possible.

Flying can wreak havoc on your ears and sinuses with the radical changes in air pressure.

If you’re prone to sinus infections and have a flight planned, you are probably expecting to be in pain – but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Every day your body produces about one litre of mucus, which picks up and flushes out foreign particles, bacteria and air pollutants. When your body is functioning optimally, the mucus is simply flushed down your throat and into your stomach where the acid destroys the bad bacteria. 

When your sinuses become infected, inflamed or congested, the mucus collects and your sinus cavities become blocked and painful.

Why you feel the change in air pressure

It’s natural to be more acutely aware of changes in air pressure when you’re flying, and the physics are quite simple. Air expands when the atmospheric pressure decreases. Take a balloon for example – if it holds three litres of air on the ground, by the time a plane has reached cruising altitude, it will have expanded to hold four litres of air. 

If your sinuses are blocked, the increase in air pressure will most likely cause you a great deal of discomfort.Dr Garrett Bennett, quote

Relieving the pressure

Fortunately there are easy ways to alleviate the pain associated with sinusitis during a flight. Dr Garrett Bennett, a rhinoplasty and sinus surgeon based in New York, suggests the following: 

1. Saline solution
The dry air and low humidity will cause discomfort but using a saline solution can help keep your sinuses moist. Dr Bennett says you should spray each nostril once an hour. 

2. Decongestant spray
Although doctors warn that your nose can develop a tolerance to decongestant sprays if used too frequently, you should try to use one a few hours before boarding your flight.

“It will not only decongest your nasal passage but will also allow you to breathe properly and decrease the effects of pressure changes during your flight,” Dr Bennett explains. 

3. Hydration
Make sure you stay hydrated throughout the flight. “Hydration is a key part of preventing the onset of sinusitis while up in the air,” says Dr Bennett.

Drink between five and eight glasses of water before and during the flight so your body remains hydrated and your sinus cavities stay moist. 

4. Steam
The dry cabin air will decrease the mucus flow in your nose, which allows bacteria and viruses to stick around.

“Dry air is one of the biggest causes of sinus infections, especially for those of us who are naturally predisposed to acute or chronic sinusitis,” Dr Bennett explains.

Steam can help keep your sinuses moist, but where can you find steam on a flight? Order a cup of tea and breathe in the steam before drinking it.

Medication and travel

If you need to carry any medication, check with the airline to make sure you are allowed to take it on board in your hand luggage, especially if you are travelling internationally and it is a liquid.

Also find out whether you will need to carry a copy of the prescription. Ensure you have enough medication to last you throughout your trip, plus some extra – you do not want to be caught without your meds if there are any delays. 

No danger to your health

Although flying with sinusitis is bound to be uncomfortable, it is unlikely to be dangerous. Keep your nasal passages moist during the flight and speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about a sinus infection and an upcoming flight. 


Ask the Expert

Sinusitis Expert

Dr Gary Kroukamp MBCHB, FCORL(SA) is an ENT Specialist, practising from rooms at Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont, Cape Town. He also has a teaching sessional appointment as an ENT Consultant at the Tygerberg Hospital. He is a member of the ENT Society of South Africa and the South African Cochlear Implantation Group. His interests in the ENT field include sinusitis and sinus surgery, nasal allergy and ENT conditions in children.

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