Flying With A Cold: Everything You Need To Know Before Boarding

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Everything you need to know about flying with a cold!

Picture this: you’ve booked your flights, packed your bags, and are ready to embark on your next adventure… When an ever-annoying common cold decides to make an appearance!

Whether you’re suffering from a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, or even a fever, travelling with cold symptoms can be a nightmare. Plus, you may now be wondering – should you fly with a cold?

Rest assured: a simple common cold shouldn’t mean you have to cancel your holiday! In this article, we’ll answer your questions on flying when sick and list some of our top travel tips to make flying with a cold that little bit easier.

Is It OK To Fly With A Stuffy Nose?

When deciding “is it ok to fly with a cold?”, it’s essential to consider not only your own wellbeing (particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition), but also the impact on other passengers.

Airborne viruses can easily spread in the confined space of a plane, potentially exposing others to illness. In this post-Covid era, we should all be mindful of the potential risk travelling when sick can pose to those around us – particularly those living with suppressed immune systems, disabilities, and medical conditions.  Flying with the flu virus infection is not advised. 

Knowing whether you’re well enough to fly or not is essential. While a sneeze here and there shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a holiday, if your cold symptoms are not alleviated by over the counter cold medicine, or if you have a high fever, severe respiratory symptoms, or other signs of a more serious illness, it’s advisable to postpone your travel plans and speak to your GP.

If you’re feeling well enough to travel, however, keep reading for some strategies on how to keep your symptoms at bay during the flight!

Can Flying With A Cold Damage Your Ears?

The congestion caused by a head cold can wreak havoc on your nasal passages, affecting the delicate balance of air pressure inside your head. A stuffed-up nose can make equalising pressure more difficult, often causing pain or a clogged sensation in the ears. This is because the eustachian tubes, whose role it is to equalize pressure inside your head, struggle to manage the air pressure changes between your ear and the cabin air. 

As the plane ascends or descends, changes in air pressure can lead to discomfort in the middle ear and inner ear areas – aka, that clogged feeling you get. Flying while congested can also lead to discomfort (or even pain) inside your sinuses, and even an ear infection. To avoid this, staying hydrated is crucial during air travel – water helps keep the mucus membranes in your nasal passages moist, making it easier to equalize pressure. Chewing gum or swallowing frequently can also help.

The Eustachian tube is a key component of the ear.

How to unclog ears after flying with a cold? If your ears still feel clogged upon landing, try performing the Valsalva manoeuvre: close your mouth, gently pinch your nose shut, and exhale as if you were blowing up a balloon. This manoeuvre forces air into your Eustachian tubes and can help balance the pressure inside them.  This should be done gently to prevent any damage of the sensitive eardrum. 

If your ears remain clogged after this, try applying a warm compress against the affected ear for 15-20 minutes to promote fluid drainage. If discomfort continues, speak to a pharmacist or doctor for help.

What To Do If You Have To Fly With A Cold?

Having a cold and flying can be managed with over the counter medication, hydration, and plenty of rest. Here are our top 5 things to add to your hand luggage packing list:

1. Decongestants and nasal sprays

Decongestants like Sudafed can help relieve nasal congestion and swelling, making it easier to breathe. Nasal sprays, such as Vicks nasal spray, can also provide quick relief. Be careful not to overuse nasal sprays to avoid a rebound effect, which is when your congestion symptoms get even worse and make flying with sinus congestion difficult.

2. Pain relievers

Struggling with a headache or muscle aches? Paracetamol or ibuprofen can help ease your symptoms and bring down a fever – just be sure to follow the recommended dosage and not mix it with over the counter flu and cold remedies that may  already contain paracetamol.

3. Cough suppressants and throat lozenges

If you’re suffering from a persistent cough, a cough syrup (choose a bottle under 100ml for on-board use) or throat drops, like Strepsils, can help calm it down. They’ll also help keep your throat moist in the dry cabin air and soothe any soreness.

4. Allergy medication

If your cold comes with the added bonus of sneezing and itchy eyes, reach for allergy tablets containing loratadine or cetirizine. The antihistamines will help suppress allergic reactions and make your journey a little less unbearable.

5. Water and electrolytes

Proper hydration can aid in a speedier recovery, so keep yourself well-hydrated throughout your flight by sipping on water, herbal tea, or electrolyte drinks. Rehydration sachets can be a life saver!

Finally, don’t forget a travel pillow, eye mask and earplugs for some restorative sleep! 

Looking for more packing ideas? 

Our free downloadable packing list has all the items you’ll need to remember for the trip of a lifetime.

Before you embark on your journey, consult with your GP or healthcare provider for medical advice to ensure the chosen medicines align with your health condition and won’t interfere with any existing treatments. And, of course, always adhere to the recommended dosage instructions!

Can Airlines Deny Boarding If You Have A Cold?

Can an airline stop you from flying if you are sick? While you may already be worrying and asking yourself “will they let me on a plane with a cough?”, it’s unlikely you’ll be denied entry onto the plane because of a mild cold. 

However, traveling when sick can still be dangerous, especially if you are experiencing more severe symptoms or are living with a pre-existing medical condition. The NHS Fit For Travel website advises that airlines may not let you travel if they are concerned that your condition may get worse during the flight or that your illness may infect other passengers. (You may be able to get a refund on your ticket if you are too sick to fly – check your travel insurance policy for more details.)

If you feel well enough to travel by plane despite your head cold, consider fellow passengers by practising good airline etiquette: wear a face mask; if you sneeze or cough, do so into a tissue or your elbow; and if you’re dealing with a runny nose, use tissues and make sure to dispose of them properly! Use antiseptic hand gel to destroy any bugs on your hands immediately as infection could spread to anything you touch on the plane afterwards. 

Summary On Flying With A Cold

Despite being extremely unpleasant, flying with a head cold is often manageable with proper preparation. 

From choosing the right medication to practising good hygiene on board and staying well hydrated, our “flying with a cold” tips above will help ensure a smooth journey that takes you to your destination safely and ready for a new travel adventure. 

Remember to pack a small first-aid kit with hand sanitiser, tissues, nasal spray, and pain medication to manage any troublesome symptoms, especially if you’re flying long haul, and drink plenty of water.

And as always, consult your doctor for personalised advice on how sick travel may impact any pre-existing medical conditions. Safe travels!

Flying With A Cold: Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does A Cold Last?

Cold symptoms, which can include a runny nose, coughing or sneezing, fever, headaches and muscle aches, and a loss of taste or smell, usually last for around one or two weeks. If your symptoms linger for over three weeks, or if you’re experiencing more severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or a very high temperature, speak to your pharmacist, doctor or care team.

What Is The Quickest Way To Get Rid Of A Cold?

The most important thing you can do to get rid of a cold is get plenty of rest and sleep. Drink plenty of water and fluids like fruit juice, soups, and broths, take pain medication if needed to soothe a headache or muscle pains, and let the symptoms run their course. You should be all better within a couple of weeks!

What Is The Best Decongestant Before Flying?

In our “best decongestant for flying” contest, nasal sprays such as Sudafed and Stérimar come out on top! They can be a great way to relieve congestion and avoid ear pain during your flight. However, be careful not to over-use them, as this could cause a rebound effect.

Does Vitamin C Help With Colds?

While vitamin C is absolutely key to our health and is involved in many body functions, it hasn’t been proven to prevent colds. However, it may help reduce the length and severity of cold symptoms – so get that orange juice down you, or eat an orange!

Can My Child Fly With A Cough?

While often very challenging, flying with a sick toddler or child is usually safe, unless they are suffering from a contagious illness such as whooping cough – in which case you may be denied boarding by the airline. For a simple cold, just make sure to practise proper hygiene and keep them comfortable and hydrated throughout the flight!

Is It Safe To Fly With Bronchitis?

Flying while sick with bronchitis or a chest infection is not recommended. That is because bronchitis could be contagious and may spread to other passengers, even with all the best precautions taken. What’s more, the changes in air pressure may make your symptoms worse and delay your recovery.

Can You Get Flight Refund For Being Sick?

Some airlines may give you a refund if you need to cancel your flight because of illness, however this is not guaranteed. Having a solid travel insurance policy in place before you fly is the best way to ensure you’ll be protected if a serious illness stops you from travelling.

Can Airlines Force Travelers Off A Plane For Being Sick?

While airlines typically won’t stop you from travelling with a cold, you may be denied boarding if your symptoms are severe or if you’re suffering from a serious or contagious illness. If you’re concerned about the severity of your symptoms and whether you’ll be allowed to fly, speak to your GP and check with your airline before travel.

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