October 2nd, 2017

How to fly with a sinus infection without your face exploding

**Warning: this entire post is about my health—whiny, dull, and, in places, disgusting.**

I wrote last week about my glorious adventure in New Brunswick, but I wanted to keep the medical aspects of the trip for a separate post, lest they take over. For in truth, I was rather sick for the events I described. Not as sick as I have been this summer–for truly, this was the summer of illness for me. I started feeling vaguely unwell at the end of July, andwas truly ill for the second half of August and most of September. Starting late last week, I’ve been basically fine for the first time in several months, but not counting any damn chickens.

So in the second week of September, I had a sinus infection plus assorted other things, and was freaking out because I didn’t seem to be getting better past enough to fly in ten days. In case you don’t know, if you fly when your sinuses are too congested you run the risk of the pressure not adjusting properly in your ears (the “pop”) and if it gets too intense and you don’t/can’t take appropriate measures, the eardrum can rupture, which is not the worst thing that can happen to a person but causes you to bleed from your ear and possibly lose your hearing and is pretty bad. The reasons babies cry so hysterically on planes (well, one reason) is that they don’t know how to swallow to adjust the pressure in their ears and they are feeling it really strongly–unadjusted pressure hurts a lot, even if you are well and uncongested. So you can imagine (or I can) what a rupturing might feel like.

I was very worried about this. Not so much the pain, and the possibility of permanent hearing loss, though I was afraid of those things very much, but: here I am getting this amazing professional opportunity and I might have to walk off the plane and introduce myself to Ian LeTourneau, who has been very kind to me via email but whom I’ve never met, and say I have ruptured my eardrum, please take me to the hospital.

So, five days before my flight, a Sunday of course, I panicked and spent two hours in a walkin clinic to get antibiotics. I had tried to get an appointment with my own doctor the previous week, but she was too busy. All my other sinus infections have gone away on my own, but this one didn’t seem to be, and I didn’t have time to see how it panned out. So I start taking the antibiotics, in concert with decongestants, a steroidal nasal spray, a neti pot, and a nasal mister and lo and behold: the day before the flight, the mucus had gone from yellow to clear (yuck!) signalling that the antibiotics had worked but here’s the thing–other than the colour, nothing had really changed. I still *felt* like I had a sinus infection, even if I was no longer technically infected. And there was still plenty of fluid in the exact wrong spot–inside my face, where it could burst out an eardrum at an inopportune moment–even if it was the right colour.

So I read everything the internet said about whether my eardrum was going to burst, which was surprisingly inconclusive. Basically they said, don’t fly if you can avoid it, which was unhelpful–who flies for no reason? The tickets you can change cost twice as much!! But they didn’t say what is the difference between the people who have a sinus infection and fly and go deaf in one ear, and the people who have a sinus infection and fly and are fine. I got the feeling that maybe some people are just more organized and prepared, and also perhaps luckier?? Anyway, in an attempt to put myself in the lucky category, here’s what I did:

1) Keep on the decongestants all day and all night before the flight, and take the max dose half an hour before the flight. I thought these pills just made me feel better superficially by numbing the pain but apparently they actually shrink swollen tissue, making it easier for horrible fluids to escape from the appropriate holes and not have to create new ones.
2) Spend the previous day in a room with a humidifier, plus regular use of nasal mister. This is to thin said horrible fluids, also in aid of their easy and painless escape from my face.
3) Stay super-hydrated before the flight, again with a fluid-thinning agenda. There are also actual mucus-thinning drugs, but I was scared to put yet another unfamiliar chemical into my body right before the flight.
4) Nasal irrigation–only at home and in the hotel of course, because that’s a big project and there are limits to what even I will do in an airport bathroom. This is to evacuate horrible fluids before they attempt to escape on their own.
5) A shot of Dristan right before the flight. The doctor told me I might need to take this *after* the flight, if my ears were plugged but not exploded, but an American website told me to take a different nose-drug before the flight, and that drug doesn’t seem to exist in Canada, so I just took the Dristan. I also forget what this is for. I think it’s another tissue-shrinker.
6) Chew gum on the plane for takeoff and landing but also have two bottles of water, one for each, because gum cannot generate enough spit for all the swallows all the time. Swallow constantly. It feels odd (and probably looks odd) but does help.
7) Earplanes are a pressure-regulating earplug and I half-wonder if I could have just used these and not gotten up to all the other shenanigans above. You put them on while still at normal pressure (on the ground, ideally before the plane door has shut) and you can take them out when you are at full altitude and put them back for descent, or if you are paranoid like me leave them in for the whole flight, taking them out again, after the doors have opened. They worked really well for me, adjusting pressure more slowly and gently than it would have otherwise, though it still hurt.

So basically I had a mildly painful and highly anxious flight to Fredericton, but emerged from the plane feeling like I had WON THE LOTTERY. The great thing about assuming the worst is that everything else feels like the best! The fact that no eardrums burst and I could resume normal functioning as soon as I hit the ground, and go do all the nice things I had planned around the festival was solid gold. I hope these tips might help other people have as glorious an experience of non-eardrum-bursting as I did!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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