How can a trip that includes checked bag fees, canceled flights and never-ending layovers get worse? By adding in a head cold, of course. The worst parts of traveling are 10 times worse when you feel crummy – but colds, like non-refundable flights, can’t just be rescheduled. Prepare by filling that carry-on bag with tissues, lozenges, OTC medications and a few other must-have supplies; then relax into the cramped seat and remind yourself: This too shall pass.

Flying With a Cold: Overview

First things first: Is it safe to fly with a cold? That depends on the severity of the illness. If you’re dealing with a run-of-the-mill cold – the type that causes a few days of mild congestion, aches and fatigue – traveling by plane should be perfectly safe.

But not all colds are minor. If you’ve been sick for several days, the over-the-counter products aren’t working, if you’ve been diagnosed with an infection, or if you suspect you might have the flu rather than a mild cold, flying isn’t in your best interest. Nor is it in the best interests of all the other plane passengers. Bringing a contagious illness into a confined space can be dangerous, especially for any other passengers who have weakened immune systems.

Remember to always follow medical advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) especially in regards to Coronavirus or other infectious diseases and symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or runny nose.

Flying With Clogged Ears

One of the biggest challenges of air travel with a cold is handling clogged ears. This condition strikes many travelers during takeoff and landing when air pressure changes, but you’re especially prone to ear discomfort when flying while sick. The Eustachian tubes, which connect the inner ear with the back of the throat, work to balance the pressure between the outside air and your body. When the cabin pressure drops in the plane, these tubes work to equalize the pressure in your body – usually.

When you’re sick with a cold, your mucus membranes swell and become irritated, which makes it harder for air to escape your ears, leading to unpleasant clogs. It might feel a little bit like you’re underwater, and the sensation can be intense and painful. It’s possible for this trauma to cause the eardrum to rupture, and that’s more likely to happen when you’re traveling with a cold or ear infection.

Protecting Your Eardrums While Flying

Keeping the Eustachian tubes and middle ear open minimizes the risk that you’ll experience pain or eardrum rupture during the trip. Doctors' travel tips commonly suggest that you use a decongestant to ease sinus pressure before boarding and again before landing. Decongestants reduce the swelling in the mucus membranes and make it possible for air to move through the tubes. Additional guidance suggests travelers drink lots of water before and in-flight as well as wearing lip balm to offset the dry cabin air.

Certain types of earplugs that are made especially for flying also may help. These plugs have built-in filters that help the ears adjust gradually to changing pressure. Many travelers have success using these plugs, and they can be especially useful when you have a cold, and the Eustachian tubes aren’t working as they normally would. Chewing gum or yawning during takeoff and landing should also help.

Sometimes, pressure changes will cause an eardrum to rupture. If it happens, you might feel liquid leaking from the ear and experience dizziness, hearing loss and a sudden absence of ear pain. The rupture may resolve itself without treatment, but a doctor should still see you to rule out infection. If the rupture happens at the beginning of a trip, head to an urgent care clinic upon arriving in a new city.

Choosing the Best Decongestant for Flying

Head to the pharmacy, and you’ll notice a sea of decongestant options. Sudafed is one of the most common names in decongestants, but you might also see Vicks, Mucinex, Afrin and store brands available on the store shelves. Look for a product that is just a decongestant; some medications are also targeted at allergy sufferers and contain antihistamines, but it’s not wise to ingest ingredients that you don’t actually need.

Decongestants in pill form work to reduce mucus membrane swelling. Nasal sprays work too and might provide more immediate relief. However, hold off on using them until the day of the flight. Using nasal sprays for longer than three days can make swelling and congestion worse. Also, always check with a doctor or pharmacist if you have questions on what medication may help you.

Nasal sprays and liquid pills or liquid medication count toward your liquid allowance, and they must be packed in accordance with the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquid rule. Bring only containers that are no larger than 3.4 ounces and pack them in a 1-quart bag before going through security.

Flying With a Sinus Infection

Sinusitis, more commonly known as a sinus infection, might start out feeling like a cold. It happens when the nasal passages, or hollow spaces in the facial bones, become inflamed. Sinusitis can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Bacterial sinusitis might respond to antibiotics, but the viral type won’t.

If cold symptoms don’t go away or start improving within a few days, sinusitis must be the real culprit. Generally, the condition will clear up on its own. Sinusitis feels a lot like a cold, and doctors typically advise the same preventative tips for travelers with sinusitis as they do for travelers with common colds. Using a decongestant during the hour before takeoff may help to reduce any uncomfortable swelling.

Saline nasal rinses are also useful for clearing out the sinuses and relieving pressure. Look for a kit that includes a bottle or nasal syringe and saline solution powder. Some types of kits include pre-filled bottles, but those will count toward your liquid limit. After getting through security, follow package directions to mix up the solution with bottled water. (Ideally, the water will be warm, but that’s hard to come by in an airport.) With your head tilted over a sink, pour the saline solution into one nostril. It should run through the nasal passages and come out the other nostril.

Flying While Sick to Your Stomach

As if headaches, sniffling and congestion weren’t enough to ruin a flight – when a head cold is accompanied by an unpleasant bout of nausea, traveling feels truly miserable. It’s common to experience stomach aches and lack of appetite with a cold, and the bumps and shakes that airplane passengers can experience only make things worse.

Soothe an unhappy stomach by avoiding meals in the hours before a flight. Suck on ginger candy as the flight begins. That should calm nausea, soothe a sore throat and minimize ear pain, all at the same time. Ask at the gate if it’s possible to move to an aisle seat near a bathroom, just in case you need to reach it quickly during the flight. Make sure the seat-back pocket holds an air sickness bag, or ask for one if it doesn’t.

If you suspect the nausea is caused by the stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis, delay travel if at all possible. These viruses can be highly contagious, and the close quarters of an airplane cabin is the perfect environment for germs to spread. Gastroenteritis tends to cause diarrhea and vomiting, neither of which is comfortable to experience on a plane.

Flying With a Toddler While Sick

Mommy or Daddy is sick, but that doesn’t mean much to a toddler. As any toddler’s parent knows, young kids are antsy and inquisitive. Keeping a little one calm and giving the child all the attention he or she needs or wants during a trip is hard under the best of circumstances.

Hopefully, the flight will coincide with the child’s normal nap time or sleep time, because that means less work for you and more chances for both of you to rest. Some parents are comfortable giving toddlers a small dose of an antihistamine to encourage sleep on the plane. Talk to the pediatrician before giving your toddler any new medications. Providing new books, coloring books and magnetic blocks might help keep the child’s attention and help them grow drowsy in a way that stimulating screen time won’t.

Sometimes, sleep just isn’t an option for a little one. In that case, technology really can be a sanity saver. Load a tablet or phone with apps targeted at toddlers (try them out first to make sure they work and are appropriate for your child); stick a pair of kids’ headphones on your child and let him or her curl up next to you. Loading some kids’ meditation music onto your phone might also help soothe a wild child. As long as your toddler is occupied and distracted, you can rest your voice and save your energy.

Flying While Sick and Pregnant

Being pregnant on a plane is uncomfortable. Being pregnant and sick? A two-hour flight might feel positively endless. First, get your doctor’s input. If you’re already having a complicated pregnancy, your doc may advise staying grounded or taking medical precautions like using a paper mask to minimize exposure to germs. Also, get the doctor’s input before taking any decongestants or other over-the-counter medications to make sure anything you ingest is safe for both you and baby.

If ever there was a time when it made sense to pay extra for more legroom, this is it. But if paying for an upgrade isn’t in the budget, head to the counter at the gate and plead your case to a gate agent. A sympathetic agent may be willing to move a sick, pregnant woman into a row with extra legroom for no extra cost. Make sure it’s an aisle seat to allow for easy access to the bathroom.

Canceling Flights Due to Sickness

Even if your contagiousness would put other passengers at risk, the airline isn’t necessarily going to be sympathetic about your last-minute need to cancel a flight. It’s unlikely you’ll see a refund or any money back at all. It does make sense from their perspective; after all, if airlines gave refunds for every traveler who pleaded sickness, tons of people would take advantage.

Still, there’s no harm in contacting the carrier to ask about your options if canceling is necessary. There’s some chance of getting a refund, or at least a partial refund, if you can supply a doctor’s note stating that you’re not able to fly. Some former Southwest passengers say that the airline gave their money back under these conditions. Of course, your illness might not rise to the level of going to the doctor – and if the cost of visiting the doctor is as much as a plane ticket, this option might not prove to be financially viable.

More Tips for Flying Sick

Flight still a few days away? Reach for citrus, broccoli and fortified cereal. Researchers say that, contrary to myth, vitamin C won’t prevent you from catching a cold – but once you’re sick, vitamin C might shorten the length of a cold. A 2013 analysis of studies involving more than 11,000 people found that participants had to get at least 200 mg of vitamin C each day to see their illnesses shortened.

Ultimately, traveling with a head cold or other sickness is just something you might have to white-knuckle your way through. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before and during the trip to make it easier to sleep and bring a cozy pillow and blanket with you. Load some soothing music, guided meditations or dull podcasts onto a phone or tablet; then zone out until it’s time to land.