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When Flying Is Painful, Literally (And What To Do About It)

I’ll admit I’m not the best flier.

It’s not that I’m afraid of flying, but that my stomach, sinuses, and head seem to freak out when I change altitudes, and I need to work on relieving sinus pressure when flying quickly or else wriggle around in discomfort. 

Do you know how awkward it is to throw up your entire stomach contents in your airplane seat?

I do.

Three separate times, actually.

Despite being prone to nausea and migraines in-flight, what happened to me on my most recent plane ride left me seriously terrified.

We’d just reached 10,000 feet, and I was reading a book, when suddenly the entire right side of my face went numb.

It started with my lips, moving back to my teeth then up to my cheek bones, before reaching my eye and skull for a blinding pain…but only on the right side.

I poked my right lip and it felt like leather, slapped my right cheek and felt nothing.

It was as if my dentist was sitting next to me beating me with a hammer and then injecting me with his scary Novocain syringe all over the right side of my face.

My first thought — after my weird dentist fantasy — was that I was 28 years old and having a stroke.

I knew it took 3-6 minutes of oxygen not reaching your brain for permanent damage to occur, but I still felt oddly awkward about letting anyone know what was going on.

What if they grounded the plane and I ruined everyone’s vacation?

But what if they didn’t ground the plane and my brain literally burst and poured out my ears?

This is what I felt like was happening, anyway.

Here’s my story on flying with sinus pressure.

Psst, don’t forget to pin this post for later!

What to do when flying is painful

Searching For Answers

Luckily, the plane had Wi-Fi and I was able to consult Google about my current situation.

I was literally in so much pain I could barely concentrate on typing, the chatter of the fliers next to me hurting my ears and making me feel sicker.

What I found was comforting — at least in the sense that it didn’t look like I was dying, even though it felt that way.

Apparently, I’m not the first one to experience this facial paralysis, which can last anywhere from minutes to days.

According to researchers Drs. Kim Ah-See and Sangeeta Maini, it occurs when pressure in the middle ear increases and presses a facial nerve, leading to a temporary loss of sensation until pressure is normalized.

For me, it felt a lot like sinus pressure on steroids, which also wouldn’t have been surprising as I have terrible sinuses and allergies, and often have to deal with a sinus infection on airplanes. 

relieving sinus pressure
Photo courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via flickr

Quite honestly, once I felt the descending airplane making its way out of the sky and back toward earth, I almost jumped up and did a happy dance. I couldn’t wait. 

Sadly, relief wasn’t instant. 

Relieving sinus pressure and pain took about an hour on the ground; however, I was landing in Colorado.

While I felt fine in Denver, as I climbed farther above sea level on a drive to Grand Lake it came back with a vengeance, and I spent the ride whimpering in the back of the car.

About three hours later the pain had decreased to what felt like an open cavity covered in sugary fudge, only in my mouth area.

This led me to another discovery:

Some fliers also experience extreme mouth and jaw pain while flying because a loose filling or hole in the teeth can allow an air pocket to occur with no place to dispel — not pleasant during extreme pressure changes.

Relieving Sinus Pressure & Pain In-Flight

What saved my trip was a visit to the local pharmacist, who told me to use Simply Saline to keep my nasal passages moist, and take Mucinex D leading up the flight home.

I felt better almost instantly.

And on the flight home, I didn’t experience the tear-inducing pain I had on the way there, although I did feel a slight pressure in my sinuses.

I’ve also been told by numerous friends to use EarPlanes, which I have since ordered. 

I also talked to Dr. Mona Vand, aka The Modern Pharmacist, about the issue, who notes that Sinusitis — swelling and inflammation of the sinus — does have the potential to cause facial numbness and tingling, and even pain in the face when flying. 

“This is because it impacts the infraorbital nerve,” she explained. “This nerve effects sensations on the lower eye, cheek, and upper lip area. A cure to this problem is to treat the sinusitis. Decongestants such as Pseudoephed could treat this problem.”

Wondering how to avoid sinus pressure when flying?

Well, for those who experience extreme pressure during and after flying — like me — she recommends taking a decongestant, such as over-the-counter phenylephrine (mild) or behind-the-counter but non-prescription Pseudoephed if it’s intense pain.

She adds:

“Another tip is to chew gum throughout the flight. Swallowing frequently can alleviate some of the pressure.”

relieving sinus pressure
The view may be pretty; however, what goes on inside isn’t always so nice. Photo courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via flickr

When Medication Doesn’t Work (Updated!)

Turns out I was not in the clear, as I had thought.

The painful numbing sinus issue occurred again on TWO MORE FLIGHTS (ouch!).

Despite having awful health insurance with a high $6,600 deductible, I sprang the $250 to see a Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist and the $250 to get a CAT Scan as the pain was unbearable.

It turns out I need surgery.

According to my doctor and soon-to-be surgeon, Dr. Eric Cohen, New York Otolaryngologist, we all have four paranasal sinuses near the nose.

The maxillary is the largest, located between the cheeks and teeth around the nose.

Apparently, I was “dealt a very bad hand sinus-wise,” as my right maxillary sinus is malformed, protruding into the nasal cavity much more than normal.

Like, much much.

When I saw my X-ray, where my sinus looked like a steroid-grown potato, and compared it to a normal sinus, which looked like a heart-shaped quarter, I was alarmed.

Oh, and there’s more.

I apparently also have a severely deviated septum, inflamed tissue in all of my facial sinuses, polyp growth in the middle nasal passage and enlarged turbinates, which are spongy seashell-shaped bones in your breathing passage.

Oy vey.

Most of this is due to pure bad luck with genetics and anatomy.

The solution is a bilateral endoscopic sinus surgery, reduction of the inferior turbinates and opening of the sinuses — all of which I’ll be undergoing on August 25, 2015.

Stay tuned for Update #2 afterward!

Update #2

Since this blog post, I’ve gotten many, many emails from those who have also experienced sinus pain after flying.

While I can’t diagnose you and don’t claim to be a doctor, I will say I do not experience this issue at all since my sinus surgery.

Sure, the week after is pretty brutal — you can’t blow your nose — and the following weeks you’ll have nose bleeds, but wow, was it worth it.

I have crappy health insurance, so I ended up paying well over my deductible for this surgery out of pocket.

A lot of money, but so worth it. It’s almost as if I’m breathing for the first time.

My Top Sinus Pressure Tips

This experience has taught me a lot about how to relieve sinus pressure in-flight.

In the video above, I share my top tips.


I am not a doctor.

I’m simply a frequent flier who genuinely thought sinus pain would keep her from ever flying again, until now.

How do you work on relieving sinus pressure when flying?

Airplane Accessories For Sinus Sufferers


These earplugs are made to relieve head pressure inflight. Put them on before the cabin doors are closed and you’ll feel so much better in the air. 

Saline Spray

After my surgery I make sure to use this every single day, at home and on the road, to clean out my sinuses. Also, if you’re looking at how to relieve sinus pressure after flying, saline sprays can help you.

Eucalyptus Oil

I like to dab a few drops on my temples, the crown of my head, on my neck and behind my ears for sinus relief while flying.

Frequently Asked Questions About Flying With Sinus Pressure

Q) Are sinusitis and flying a bad idea?

Flying with sinusitis or ear infection isn’t a good idea as the air pressure change can worsen your symptoms.

Q) How do I deal with sinus pressure when flying?

You can use things such as saline nasal irrigation and earplugs. Drinking water and chewing gum can also help you relieve the air pressure.

Q) How do I relieve sinus pressure after flying?

Staying hydrated and using nasal sprays or breathing in steam can help you relieve sinus pain.

Q) How long does sinus pain last after a flight?

It can last anything from a few hours to several days.

Save this pin about sinus pain when flying for later!

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  1. Leigh Anne on at 5:48 pm

    Are you sure it isn’t worms? 🙂

  2. Amanda on at 4:19 am

    This sounds beyond awful! I don’t know how you kept it together – if my face went half-numb on a plane I would definitely have a panic attack! (And, in fact, when I used to have fairly bad anxiety, parts of my face WOULD sometimes go numb, which was terrifying.)

    Sucks that you have to have surgery, but hopefully that will mean no more sinus issues, right??

    • Jessie Festa on at 10:36 am

      @Amanda: It was so scary. I literally thought I was having a stroke. I’ve never heard of anyone ever talking about that kind of symptom, so was so odd. Fingers crossed this will be the end of it. I had to cancel a Malaysia trip, but kind of want to go on a practice 1-hour short flight in case the issue isn’t resolved! ha.

      • Vlora Halimi on at 6:33 pm

        I just had this last night and I still feel the same thing today I cried the hole flight from tempa florida to Chicago that never happened to me before tomorrow I’m going to my doctor to see what she says I still feel pain today it’s crazy to know what a flight can do I’m scared to fly again any tips love how did u treat it what was the couse?

        • Jessie Festa on at 5:45 pm

          @Vlora: Sorry to hear that! The post goes over all my best tips for treating this. Hopefully it will bring you some comfort.

  3. Peter Z. on at 8:50 pm

    i have this same exact issue but on the left side of my face. clueless doctors so far…any luck after the surgery?

    • Jessie Festa on at 9:01 pm

      @Peter: YES! Tremendous. I feel like a new person. I highly recommend going to a specialist for this, as my GP had told me I had allergies. If it’s what I had, you have some serious sinus issues that need surgery to fix. I would do it again in a heartbeat. If you’re in the New York area shoot me an email and I can give you my doctor’s info. My email is jessie (at) jessieonajourney (dot) com. Best of luck!

  4. steph on at 3:20 am

    Thank you so much for this! yesterday i was on a return flight from Italy when it happened to me and dear lord it was the worst pain i have ever known, we were an hour away from landing but it felt like an eternity, i’m planning a trip to Sweden soon and really hope it doesn’t come back!

    • Jessie Festa on at 6:23 am

      @Steph: Eeek. I would definitely go to a specialist and get a CT Scan before getting on a plane again. It happened to me once, then not again, then again, and it was so unbearable. I actually thought I might have to ground the plane. Surgery was the only thing that helped, and when they saw my sinuses through at CT Scan it was very obvious why. In the meantime, try saline sprays and Mucinex D. These helped slightly, but not totally.

      • steph on at 2:06 pm

        Thanks, i have discussed surgery with a GP before as i have problems breathing through my nose due to thick nasal walls (sorry sounds grosse i know) it means i can’t breathe through my nose well not much and i can’t smell much, hopefully it means the GP will go ahead a bit quicker hope you don’t mind me sharing this post around obviously i will make sure to credit you but it really helped, your right though i really does make you fear flying, i normally love it but will be so nervous now especially since i will be on my own for the next trip! Travellers struggling together eh XD

        • Jessie Festa on at 2:33 pm

          @Steph: Feel free to share wherever 🙂 I honestly would have stopped traveling altogether if I hadn’t gotten that surgery. The pain beforehand was just too intense :/ Hope your issue gets solved soon!

  5. Jackie on at 8:22 am

    This is the best advice I’ve been able to find on this subject. I nearly thought I would pass out from the excruciating pain I experienced on decent from a flight yesterday. Luckily my friend had a supply of decongestants and nasal spray on hand. After a hot shower, meds and silence I finally was able to fall asleep. The pain continued for nearly 3 hours – ear, teeth, cheek, jaw and radiating to my neck on one side only. Hopelessly searching for answers, you hit the nail on the head. I’m terrified to fly home and am seriously reconsidering my ENT’s surgery recommendation. I have undergone a CAT scan and specialist visit that confirmed a very similar diagnosis. I’m running to the pharmacy immediately to prepare for my flight in 4 days. I’m terrified but will prepare this time. Thank you for sharing!

    • Jessie Festa on at 9:05 am

      @Jackie: The surgery takes awhile as you need pre-surgery appointments and then recovery time (you can’t fly for a few weeks after). I would definitely recommend continuing with the nasal spray — I do mine twice per day still — and the decongestants. It also can’t hurt to get some EarPlanes and put them in before the cabin door shuts to relieve some of the pressure. Hope this helps. It truly is one of the most extreme pains 🙁

  6. Taylor on at 12:19 pm

    Hi Jessie – did you experience a head ache with this numbness? Also, how long did it last and did the numbness go away as soon as you reached below 10,000ft?


    • Jessie Festa on at 12:39 pm

      @Taylor: Yes, I had a headache. I had an everything ache :/ And it went away almost immediately upon getting back down to the ground, but I would feel slightly “out of it.” Hope this helps!

  7. Catherine on at 7:56 pm

    Ugh, isn’t it just terrible. I landed from my plane ride over and hour ago and I’m still in so much pain. It’s been happening for about 6 months now and it’s unbearable. Every time it feels like something in my face is going to explode. I need to do something for the next time I fly, I can’t deal with the pain. If it happens again I think I’m going to go to the doctor. Your post was very helpful, thank you. Good luck!

    • Jessie Festa on at 8:08 am

      @Catherine: Definitely go to the doctor. Honestly if I hadn’t had that surgery I would have stopped air travel all together. So painful :/

  8. Leah on at 1:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing, you make so many realize they are not alone.
    I thought I would share my motion sickness tip with you since I will be trying your tips.
    When feeling nauseous, tilt your head, like laying on a pillow. The idea is to upset your inner ear fluid. The nausea should subside. This has worked on many flights for me, although your neck could be a little sour by landing.

    • Jessie Festa on at 1:48 pm

      @Leah: Wow thanks so much for that tip. So simple, yet I’d never heard of it. I’d def rather have a stiff neck than nausea. Will try this!

  9. F on at 10:37 am

    Thanks for sharing. I have experienced this a couple of times and have still not recovered from my last trip 2 days back. Still having severe pain on my cheek bones.

  10. Thom on at 11:52 am

    I feel that I am a little late, but here is my input
    My issues started out pretty minor; a little pain here and there and some blood in the mucous after we reached about 25,000 ft. Early 2016 things seemed to get much worse. My upper left jaw went completely numb and it felt like my head was about to explode. Like you, I quietly sat in my chair thinking: Am I having a stroke? After 3 or 4 minutes, I was still alive and things were not getting worse, so I became hopeful that is was something else. Finally, I could hear air squeezing (like children do with a ballon) and I spit out a ball of bloody mucous into a napkin. I guess that air pressure in my sinus has equalized. August of 2016, I had turbinate reduction surgery. For the next 6 months the only issue I had was a small out of pressure while landing. On a cale of one to 10, this was a 0.5. However, my last 2 flights in March and April 2017, the pain has come back. My ENT is suggesting that I might need a sinoplasty to open the passages a little more. He also mentioned that he wish he had done the balloon sinoplasty when he had me under for the turbinate reduction. (just a note for those considering turbinate reduction)
    I do get allergies this time of year and perhaps these issues have refurned for allergy season and I need to ‘prepare’ for flights better

    • Jessie Festa on at 9:43 am

      @Thom: Thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s amazing how little there is on the internet about this issue, meanwhile I’ve had so many readers share similar stories. It’s crazy just how debilitating sinus issues can be. Not going to lie, if I hadn’t had the surgery I NEVER would have flown again. So so so painful.

    • Shelley Healy on at 8:25 pm

      I have this exact problem. Novocain face on right side. Numb. Teeth ache. Having a heart attack because I think I am having a stroke. My question is were you on flights longer than 6 hours. I’ve had this 3 times, but they were two hour flights. Would I survive a flight to Hawaii? After reading this, I will see a doctor. So glad I am not alone!

  11. Tiffany on at 9:09 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve always experienced this since a young child while flying and couldn’t for the life of me figure what was wrong with me. I have the severe end of the spectrum with nasal, temple, sinus, ears, jaw, teeth everything with severe pressure, sharp shocking pain, and like you noted like your face will just implode. I have had the sinus surgery several years back with a deviated septum, bone spur, cysts, pollyps, you name it. It was pretty horrible. I’ve flown twice since and still suffer only during descent. It’s so bad all I can do is cry and rock like a little baby holding my head praying for a quick landing relief. Here I am day 2 of my flight and still in pain. Eyes, ears, teeth, jaw, and sinus cavities. I’m not sure what to do. After the pain from my sinus surgery that is definitely not happening again. I’ve given birth and other surgeries but feel like a complete whip when it comes to this pain. Any suggestions?

    • Jessie Festa on at 11:51 am

      @Tiffany: Oh my, sorry to hear that. Unfortunately I wouldn’t know what else to do, as I had the same symptoms as you but the sinus surgery did indeed work for me. If you’re ever in New York I can give you the info of the surgeon I used. He was *amazing*!

  12. Rachael on at 4:36 pm

    I experienced this today for the second time. The first time I also thought I was having a stroke. The stabbing pain is not just around my eye but feels like thousands of pin pricks in my eyeball and lightening bolts around my eyebrow and one side of my face. Today was even worse than last time, and several hours after landing I am very sore and aching all around the affected area and the skin of my forehead and front of my scalp is partially numb. The only thing I can say that helped me get through today is meditation. When the pain first came on it was excruciating and water was literally pouring out my eye and down my face. Eventually I decided to try to meditate on the pain. I’m sure that sounds crazy but though the pain was still intense it helped keep me calm and the stabbing pains subsided and the watering stopped. It took a lot of focus!! I also feel sick when I land so that’s always fun!

  13. Jessica on at 12:28 am

    Omg thank you so much for this article. I recently experienced the same thing in my last flight, but the only difference is that my face didn’t go numb. Instead, I had this sharp pain coming from my ear to my forehead. I was in excruciating pain, I couldn’t speak, and it lasted for 5 minutes. Since then I have yet to travel because I don’t want to experience that ever again. I will definitely give these products a try and hope they work for me.

  14. Gabriela on at 11:19 am

    Jessie, Do you mind if I ask you how much you spent on the surgery?
    Please feel free to reply in private if you don’t want to post it public. Thank you!

    • Jessie Festa on at 10:22 am

      @Gabriela: I don’t mind you asking, but to be honest I don’t remember offhand. It was very expensive BUT what you pay will depend on your insurance. Mine wasn’t very good :/

  15. Masha on at 9:40 am

    My fiance has this same exact problem. It started a few years ago. He has always had very bad allergies and sinus issues (constantly sniffling and stuffed up no matter what – I don’t think he’s ever know what it’s like to be able to fully breathe through his nose). The pain is excruciating for him and I feel terrible because there is absolutely nothing I can do but sit there while he writhes around in his airplane seat. Sometimes he goes to the airplane bathroom just to scream as loud as he can in his hands because he says it somehow changes the pressure and temporarily dulls the pain. He first went to a dentist because the pain felt like it would start in his molar, then radiate out to the side of his face and then move above his eye. Multiple dentists couldn’t find any cavities or anything else wrong with his teeth. He then went to an ENT who said he had very inflamed sinuses and gave him 2 rounds of antibiotics. She noticed a deviated septum but later said it wasn’t bad enough to cause this much pain. After not much improvement in the inflammation she used that balloon probe in all 4 sinuses to try to expand the passages. She then prescribed nose sprays before his next flight. We thought we were in the clear because he didn’t experience the same pain, but we later realized that the flight was far too short and probably did not get to as high of an altitude (Boston to Pittsburgh) because the next flight (Boston to Dublin) the pain came back about 1.5 hours in even with all of his nose sprays. His most recent visit was to a face pain specialist who suggested it might be allergy related and conducted a bunch of allergy tests on him. Now he is on 8 weeks of antihistamines. He did get some kind of scan at the ENT but I am not sure if it was a CAT scan – maybe he needs to get that to see the extent of the damage. He also thinks he just needs surgery and that his sinuses are malformed somehow. We really want to book our next vacation but are putting it on hold until he gets this resolved. Your article was very helpful and I’m glad to hear that after your surgery you feel much better.

  16. Diana Vilas on at 12:01 pm

    I sympathize with all of you. I have stopped flying because the pain isn’t worth it. My pain is in the back of my head. Probably the mastoid areas which are spongy bones behind the ears, but the pain is so intense that my whole head is in agony. I now experience it driving. The first time going over the Cahuenga pass leaving Los Angeles. It was so excruciating I just wanted to die. I was debilitated for days. My husband and I take cross country driving trips now to visit family and we have learned that if we don’t go over 45 miles an hour on mountain passes, both ascent and descent, I can cross the country without pain. I have tried all of the above mentioned remedies. I had polyps removed surgically, I use a Neti pot, I take Sudafed and use Flonase, but nothing works for me. I’ve resigned myself to never flying again.

  17. jill powell on at 10:16 am

    I am thankful to have found this blog! I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to my 15 yr old son 2 days ago on a trip home from Fort Myers to Cincinnati. You described almost exactly as what he “seemed” to experience. he sat next to me and it started about 15 minutes before landing. He said his braces were hurting and it was pulling his tooth out! He kept hitting his lips and left side of face. Almost fainted until attendant gave him peppermint oil to sniff. Hot , sweaty (prob panicking) He had been seen previously by an ENT for his sinuses so i know he has deviated septum. however, too young for the surgery. always sniffing etc. My concern is he is going to a class trip to Germany in June! Without me! After reading this I will def take him back to ENT and try to get some of your mentioned air buds etc. Have to say, I am very nervous abt his Germany trip! so much longer. But I Thank You for this helpful info!

    • Jessie Festa on at 10:13 pm

      @Jill: I’m glad to help! It’s pretty incredible how little information there is online about this. I would definitely do *all* of the tips —- earplanes, essential oils, mucinex d. Try to really do as much as possible to prevent it as it is so uncomfortable. :/

    • Emily Bernstein on at 10:52 am

      Hi there- I had the same problem, too. I was preparing for a 9 hour flight to Europe and was extremely nervous… The longest flight I had been on was 6 hours and it was unbearable pain. I went to the ENT and he prescribed me to 6 days of Prednisone (steroid). Prednisone has been the only thing that really opened me up. I felt no pain, and it was life changing. I am exploring more long term options as I don’t want to continue to take Prednisone. But it is nice to know that it’s an option.

  18. Trisha on at 8:48 am

    amazing information…appretiated

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