Whether you’re a parent or not, you know that when a plane starts to descend, it means one thing: screaming kids.
Most of us have experienced the sensation of clogged or even painful ears during air travel, but no one seems to have it worse than little kids. Many of them often seem to be in full-blown, excruciating pain as the plane gets further from or closer to the ground.
If you’ve ever wondered if kids actually experience more ear pain on planes than adults (versus just being really dramatic), the answer is yes, according to Dr. Katie Lockwood, a primary care pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Kids experience more ear pain than adults during plane rides, particularly takeoff and landing, due to their ear anatomy being different than adults,” she said. “The eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat, are smaller and do not equalize the pressure as well as adult ears.”
Dr. Charles Hannum, a general pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine, adds that kids have more horizontal eustachian tubes than adults do, making drainage more difficult.
“When kids are younger, more fluid can stay in the ear because it isn’t really traveling down to the throat,” he said. “Unfortunately, for some kids, because they either have an acute illness, uncontrolled allergies or really big adenoid tissue, there are lots of ways that tubes can get blocked, and it’s harder and harder for fluid to escape.”
Plus, Lockwood said, young kids are less able to comply with some of the maneuvers that help ears equalize pressure, such as yawning. Hannum pointed out that the old “hold your nose and blow” trick that adults often use to release pressure from their ears isn’t exactly easy to explain to kids.
What parents can do to ease kids’ ears on planes
Now you know why kids are so prone to ear pain on planes, but what can you do about it? Here’s what Lockwood and Hannum suggest:
Try to avoid traveling with sick kids
An annoying suggestion? Yes — because we all know that it’s pretty hard to control when kids get sick, and they get sick a lot — but sickness or even a recent illness (especially an ear infection) can worsen ear pain.
“Try to avoid traveling while sick or with uncontrolled seasonal allergies, as these issues will impact how well ears can adapt to pressure changes,” Lockwood said.
Try a saline spray if kids are stuffy
Using a saline spray can help mobilize fluid secretion, according to Hannum. “For sick kids, a saline spray plus keeping them well hydrated, can help move mucus around.” This movement can help lessen ear pain, he explained.
And regardless of whether they’re sick, keeping your child well hydrated prior to and during the flight is key. “The air on airplanes tends to be pretty dry, making it harder for the mucus to go away,” Hannum said.
Use Tylenol or ibuprofen
Once in a while, taking preventive measures with child-safe Tylenol or ibuprofen is a good idea ― and air travel is one of those times.
“A little bit of Tylenol or ibuprofen is safe if you know your child is prone to have these issues,” Hannum said. “Trying to time the dosing to about 30 minutes before the plane is landing is ideal. … A one-time dose to help with that is totally fine, especially for kids who have had [ear pain on planes] in the past.”
Make sure they’re drinking something or yawning
Both Lockwood and Hannum say the acts of swallowing and sucking can be helpful in relieving pressure and pain, so if you’re traveling with a baby, encourage them to drink during plane pressure changes. For infants, encourage them to nurse, drink from a bottle or use a pacifier.
For toddlers, Lockwood said it can be helpful to have them suck on a lollipop, drink through a straw, or have them yawn by making silly faces or playing a game of mimicry with you. “Older children can chew gum or a chewy snack,” she said.
Don’t let them sleep through takeoff or landing, and let them cry
These both might seem counterintuitive. But Lockwood emphasized that keeping your child awake during takeoff and landing can reduce ear pain.
“Children should not sleep through takeoff and landing, as they may have a harder time trying to equalize the pressure when they wake up,” she said. Hannum echoed this, noting that kids are typically swallowing less when they’re sleeping, making it harder for them to keep fluid moving around.
Finally, if your child is crying, you should probably do the thing the other passengers don’t want you to do and let them keep going.
“The crying is kind of like yawning; it stimulates the swallowing, sucking, chewing motion,” Hannum said.
While ear pain on planes is one of the downsides of traveling with kids, in the grand scheme of things it’s a small part of your trip — and there’s quite a bit you can do to ease it. So arm yourself with Tylenol and snacks, and enjoy your flight.