Help Your Child Cope with Ear Pain on Airplanes

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Children's Hospital Los Angeles RN Remedies Gloria Verret

I remember the days of airplane travel with an infant, and then toddler, in my arms. As a mom, I worried whether my child would tolerate the airplane trip because of ear pain or whether it would be a hard trip for other passengers. After reading a study representing that 25 to 55 percent of children experience pain in their ears when traveling on airplanes and mostly during landing, I wanted to ease the worry that parents may have. To help, I partnered with Judy Sherif, RN, CPN, BSN, MNA, a nurse in our department of Emergency Transport to provide you with on tips to consider if your child is experiencing ear pain while traveling in the air and general tips when traveling with your little ones.

Why we Experience Ear Pain on Airplanes

Help Your Child Cope with Ear Pain on Airplanes

It’s a hard question to answer for a lot of people and I wanted to investigate why this happens to help provide tips for your child. The middle ear experiences a mini-trauma from the pressure difference between the air in the middle ear and the outside air during take-off and landing. Adults can easily open equalize the pressure by swallowing or yawning. Children have a difficult time knowing how to equalize the pressure and help themselves by swallowing or yawning.

As a parent, you can help. Judy shared valuable tips on helping your child cope with this potentially painful ear pressure, especially because young children have more problems with ear pain during airplane travel, than adults.

Why Kids Experience More Ear Pain, than Adults, on Airplanes

  • Kids experience more colds and upper respiratory infections than adults.
  • Kids have more tissue in the adenoids, which is in the back of their throats that can block the ears (you may have heard that adenoids are what cause some people to snore).
  • Kids are unable to swallow or yawn on command, like adults.
  • The tubes in the ear that help equalize this pressure are straight in kids’ ears and does not  curve  and drain downward like adults.

Symptoms of Mild Ear Pain

  • A feeling of ear blockage which your child may be able to verbalize
  • Pain which your child may be able to tell your or your infant may cry and tug at the ears
  • Hearing loss
  • Severe cases can cause perforation or a tear in the tympanic membrane, which is a thin, translucent membrane that separates the outer ear from the middle ear. It transmits sound and is also called the eardrum.

Help Manage and Prevent Ear Pain on Airplanes

  • If your child has a cold or symptoms of upper respiratory infection, avoid airplane travel.
  • If the child has a cold or symptoms of upper respiratory infection and you cannot cancel air travel, make sure your child has plenty of fluids to drink prior to the flight.
  • When your child feels fullness in their ear when taking off or landing, give the baby a bottle and the older child juice or water to drink.
  • If your child is older and can understand and cooperate, encourage them to chew on something, swallow, open the jaw or yawn at least four times during take off and landing.
  • Smaller children can also be offered a small straw to blow through or a colorful pinwheel to blow.
  • Wake up your sleeping child or baby during take-off and landings as the pain can be worse if they are allowed to sleep.
  • Older children can be taught how to “bear down” which is forcefully pushing out air with the lips and nostrils closed. This forces the Eustachian tube to open. NOTE: This can cause too much pressure and pain so tell the older child to just push out a little and stop if it hurts.
  • Carry a bulb syringe to clear out the nose if the child gets congested.
  • If your child has a cold, you should consider seeing a doctor or treating symptoms several days before the air travel to prevent problems with ear pain.

You probably wonder if there are any drugs to help with ear pain. “Using medicines to help with ear pain, for children, is not recommended,” shares Judy.

The latest studies of drugs like pseudoephedrine and oral antihistamines have not been effective in children and there is no scientific proof for the use of these drugs.

General Travel Tips When Traveling with Kids

I remember giving myself time to plan and organize my diaper bag to make sure I had what I needed close-at-hand for diaper changes, “binky” and toys. Bringing a new item such as a coloring book and colors, a puzzle or a book you can read together for your older child is a good idea. A new item can liven up the travel time and help maintain their attention. Other items to consider are bottles for your baby as well as snacks and juices for your older child. In addition, don’t forget to bring a bulb syringe to help clear out your child’s nose if they are congested and something for your older child to chew on if their ears hurt. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and ask for help, from the airline employees, to get on board. Disembark the airplane last to keep yourself organized. What are some ways you prepare when traveling with your kids? Share in the comments below!