Aerosinusitis or Sinus Squeeze

Last time you flew did your ears pop? Did you get a sharp pain behind you eye and experience a headache? That is exactly what happened to my husband on his last trip and this is what I discovered about what the problem and how to treat it:

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Did you experience a headache or sharp sinus pains?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to one, or all of the above, you are not alone. This post is about a reaction that is uncommonly common during flights called Aerosinusitis. Unfortunately, it can happen to any of us when flying… even yourself.

What is Aerosinusitis?

Diane A. Safer, PhD of the NYU Langone Medical Center defines Aerosinusitis (also known as Barotrauma) as a “pain or discomfort that is felt with a difference in air or water pressure between the outside environment and the inside of the body.” Meaning, any part of the body where air passes through (ie: nose, ears, lungs) can be affected. If there becomes an imbalance in air pressure, or there’s a blockage in the body’s air passages, your sinuses and any affected body part(s) will shrink or swell resulting in sharp, and discomforting pain. In more extreme cases, damages can be severe enough to require surgery.

Image source: Wikipedia
Location of sinus cavities (Wikipedia)

My Encounters with Aerosinusitis

The flight from Vancouver to Toronto started off much like any other flight I’ve been on. No delays, smooth takeoff, minimal turbulence, and I had my fair share of in-flight refreshments and entertainment. The descent, however, was anything but normal (for myself at least). After nearly five hours of flying, the captain alerted passengers to prepare for the final approach. Seat-belt buckled? Check. My ears inevitably popped as always, and I felt the plane gradually lose altitude. It was during this time that something I never thought would ever happen to me happened.

What began as a slight tickle and mild headache quickly evolved into sharp, piercing pain that I’ve never before felt in my life. My forehead, cheek bones, nasal passages were all experiencing the same pain simultaneously. I’ve been stitched-up, banged-up, and I’d argue that I have a very high pain threshold, but nothing prepared me for this pain. The pain escalated as we continued our descent. The discomfort I felt was much like sharp daggers relentlessly jabbing at my face. I began to sweat profusely. Vivian looked over to me and noticed something was horribly wrong. Not only was I tearing up from the pain and gripping the armrests tightly, I also turned completely red and struggled to breathe. The last thing I wanted was attention or a panicked cabin, so I kept myself turned away from other passengers and all flight attendants. The pain slowly diminished after we landed, but I was spent.

Was it over? Not quite. The flight from Vancouver to Toronto was only a two-hour layover. Since that was the first time aerosinusitis has ever occurred to me, I had no idea why my body reacted that way. Had I known, I would have followed the tips I’ve listed below, but because I didn’t, the pain returned on an elevated level during our next flight’s descent from Toronto to Montréal.

How to Treat and/or Prevent Aerosinusitis

If the above scenario sounds like something you’ve experienced before, or if you want to avoid this from happening to you, here are some useful steps to help! Note that your chances of experiencing said symptoms is more likely to occur if you have a cold and your air passages (especially nasal) are stuffed.

  • Chew Gum. Chewing gum on a flight – especially during takeoff and landing – will help to open enough room in your ear to allow air to pass through. Yawning and swallowing also works.
  • Saline Nasal Spray. These can be purchased over the counter from any pharmacy. They come in bottles small enough to be permitted on flights and act as a mini humidifier. One single spray will help keep your nose moisturized for a good length of time.
  • Water. Drink lots of it. This all-natural medicine doesn’t just help clean out toxins; it also helps prevent any mucus from thickening.
  • Blow Your Nose. Do this frequently especially when you know the plane is nearing its destination. Assuming your have a cold and your nose is stuffed, always keep some tissues handy and keep your nasal passages clear!
  • Sinus Relief Pills. Conveniently found in general stores at airports, these pills work fast and are effective for hours. I bought a small box of Tylenol Severe Sinus and it worked like magic.