Can You Fly With An Inner Ear Infection?

Air New Zealand plane taxiing on runway

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Our patients often ask us, can you fly with an inner ear infection? Most of the time, people are referring to their middle ear, but we get it. “Inner ear” is obviously inside your ear, and that’s where your middle ear is.

It may feel like we have little choice for flying at times, as it’s often the fastest way to travel. In 2019 over 43 million passengers moved through airports in New Zealand. 2020 will be an altogether different number, but it’s safe to assume that flying has become part of many people’s lifestyles.

Odds are we may have to travel while still feeling crook. That said, many common ailments get worse when travelling at high altitudes. A headache, stomachache, or even an inner ear infection will likely feel worse up in the air due to changes in pressure, especially considering that an average flight is 10,000km up in the sky.

Being aural health experts, we wanted to take a moment and explain the dangers of flying with a middle ear infection and what you should do.

How Serious Is a Middle Ear Infection?

If you are a frequent flyer, there is no doubt you have felt an ear-popping sensation. Why do our ears pop? Simply put, your Eustachian tube is trying to equalise with the atmospheric pressure. When your ears are free of infection, this is usually done quickly and with little or no discomfort.

If you have an ear infection, this task may become painful and sometimes challenging to equalise. Failing to equalise can cause ear barotrauma or aeroplane ear.

Depending on how severe the ear barotrauma is, this can last for the entire flight, and symptoms may persist for days afterwards. As a result, inner ear infection symptoms may worsen and, in rare cases, can cause lasting damage to your hearing.

One serious injury that can occur if your Eustachian tube cannot equalise is a ruptured eardrum.

What Is a Ruptured Eardrum?

A ruptured eardrum is a tear in the thin tissue that separates your ear canal and eardrum. A ruptured eardrum can lead to ear pain that subsides quickly, dizziness, ringing or buzzing in your ear and hearing loss.

If you have an inner ear infection, healing a ruptured eardrum can take several weeks since the eardrum may become infected. You will not want this if you travel for work or holiday, preventing you from working or enjoying your hard-earned downtime.

Can You Fly With a Middle Ear Infection?

Suppose you do have a middle ear infection. In that case, it’s best not to fly since it can increase the severity of your symptoms and, worst-case scenario, cause physical injury or lasting damage such as tinnitus and hearing loss.

What can you do if there is no way of cancelling the flight? Although you could try some home remedies for an inner ear infection, like over-the-counter pain relief, or a hot/cold compress, this may only relieve the symptoms. So even if you try, the odds are that you are not treating the actual cause of your ear infection.

What Do We Recommend?

Visit your general practitioner (GP) as an ear infection may require medication to treat. Your GP can also advise you on whether it’s safe to fly.

If you visit Ear Health and your ear nurse advises that you may have an ear infection, we will likely refer you to a GP for further treatment. All Ear Health clinics have a referral relationship with other local medical professionals such as GPs and, in many cases, ear-nose and throat specialists (ENTs). These referral relationships help provide you with the best possible quality of care for you and your ears.

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