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Ask a Maui Doctor: Should I Fly if I Have an Ear Infection?

July 8, 2017, 7:45 AM HST
* Updated July 9, 8:33 AM
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Doctors at Minit Medical answer some of the questions submitted by readers.

Each week, a doctor from Minit Medical Kahului or Lahaina will answer questions that have been submitted by readers. Submit your own medical related questions to our doctors at [email protected].

Questions submitted will be considered for inclusion in the “Ask a Maui Doctor” column.

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Hawaiian Airlines at Kahului Airport. Photo by Wendy Osher.

Q: Should I cancel my flight if I have an ear infection?

A: Anyone who has flown on an airplane has experienced the “pop” of their ears during landing. This is caused when the Eustachian tube, which runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat gets clogged. Swallowing and yawning will help equalize the pressure in your middle ear by opening the Eustachian tube. Chewing gum or sucking on mints make you swallow more as well. For the average passenger, this is all that is required.

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The common cold, ear infection or upper respiratory infection can cause a more prolonged blockage of the Eustachian tube, but a simple stick of gum won’t allow the middle ear to adjust to the pressure changes that occur when going from low pressure to high pressure as your plane descends from 40,000 feet for landing.

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Increased pressure in these circumstances can cause barotrauma which is characterized by sudden ear pain, impaired hearing and occasional vertigo (room spinning) and rupture of the ear drum.

In short, ear infections can increase risk of barotrauma during a flight. This is especially concerning for young children who have a higher risk of long-term hearing loss if they perforate their ear drums in such a manner. For that reason, it is recommended not to fly for 48 hours after starting treatment for an acute ear infection to allow for unblocking of the Eustachian tube.

Note: Infants are more susceptible to increased pressure and pain during flights, so next time that baby cries on take off or landing, cut him or her a little slack. Be sure to bring your headphones. Not to help with the pressure, but to drown out the sound of the crying babies.

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