Flying and Infant Hearing Loss

Dr. Greene, I am flying with my 3 month old. I heard that it can damage the baby’s hearing. Is that true? What can I do to help soothe her during take off and landing?

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

Flying can cause pain in babies’ ears, and it can temporarily reduce hearing, but it is not a cause of permanent hearing loss.

The pain results from stretching of the eardrum caused by pressure changes. As the airplane takes off, the air inside the airplane gets thinner. Most airlines pressurize their cabins to blunt this effect, but still the pressurized cabin is equivalent to air at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. The air in the middle ear space expands along with the air in the rest of the cabin. As it expands, the air is easily forced through the eustachian tube, a floppy tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. The eustachian tube automatically opens from the pressure. As long as there is no active, complete obstruction of the eustachian tube, the excess air exits the middle ear with a popping sensation but little or no pain. Again, during ascent this process is spontaneous.

During descent, as the air pressure rises, the middle ear space needs extra air to re-equilibrate the pressure. It tries to suck air back in through the floppy eustachian tube. However, during descent, the eustachian tube does NOT open spontaneously. A tiny muscle pulls open the eustachian tube only during swallowing, yawning, or crying. In children, this mechanism is less efficient than in adults. The rising pressure stretches the eardrum inward and can cause pain and decreased hearing until air rushes into the middle ear space and the ears “pop”.

The next time you hear a child crying during an airplane’s descent, remember, this is one instance where crying itself helps to solve the problem.

Giving your daughter something to drink can comfort her and prevent some of the eardrum stretching. This is especially important throughout descent. Giving her acetaminophen just before the flight (and repeating it every 4-6 hours) may not prevent the eardrum stretching, but it can prevent discomfort. Children who are congested or who are a bit older might benefit from an antihistamine and decongestant before the flight, but certainly talk with your doctor before giving either to a baby so young.

With these simple precautions, you and your baby can both make the most of your flying adventure. Bon voyage!

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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  1. Margaret

    Dear sir Can one travel with a two month old baby?

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    • Hi Margaret,

      I’m not a doctor, but I am a mother and I have some experience traveling with children.

      Not all travel is the same. For babies, decisions about travel can be complicated, but the decision to travel or not may become obvious when you weigh the risks against the benefits.

    • Are you flying? If so, how long will you be in the air? — The longer you are in an airplane the worse the air quality becomes. If there are sick people on the flight, this can be an issue.
    • Is your child breastfed or formula fed? — If your child is breastfed, you are passing along immunity that will help protect your child. In fact, for breastfed babies, it might be safer to when they are young than right after they are weaned.
    • Is your child well now? (This needs to be answered at the time of the travel.) — A sick baby may be miserable on the flight and make the whole trip more difficult, plus the stress of the flight might slow down the healing process.
    • Are you going for pleasure or is this an important trip to business or to see extended family? — Only you can judge the importance of travel at this time.
    • I hope that helps,
      Best, @MsGreene
      Note: I am the co-founder of DrGreene.com, but I am not Dr. Greene and I am not a doctor. Please keep that in mind when reading my comments and replies.

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  2. Alex

    Dear Sir,

    My son is now 15 months old, when he was one month old, I traveled with him for 2 hours flying journey, later on when baby became 14 months old, he not started speak and respond to our voice, we came in doubt and visited doctor and doctor declared hearing loss around 50-60 %.

    My question is that, flying at the age of one month may be the reason of permanent hearing loss Or not. Please reply. Now baby is 15 months old, and at this age cure with ear machine/medicine Or surgery is possible ?

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    • Alex,

      There are many reasons for hearing loss. As Dr. Greene says, “Flying can cause pain in babies’ ears, and it can temporarily reduce hearing, but it is not a cause of permanent hearing loss.”

      The treatment for hearing loss is dependent on the cause. Your baby needs a full workup by a hearing loss specialist to determine cause and set up a treatment plan.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful.
      @MsGreene

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