I have only flown a few times with our kids when they were young. Most of the time, we drove. Stuffing five kids in a mini-van heading out for a tour of the West is not as glamorous as it seems. The kids tended to sleep in the car, missing most of the sights along the way, only to get their second wind about the time we stopped for the day.
At least with a plane flight, the pain is over quickly; the emotional pain, of course. I really had more issues when they were on the ground. My first trip with my two-year old daughter to Hawaii went fine, but when we arrived, she developed an ear infection, dropped a heavy can of corned beef on her big toe in a grocery store, and had sand blown in her eyes on the beach.
When our oldest son was left with two young children after his wife ran off with a cowboy, we decided to bring them to our home for a few months to allow him time to relocate. I brought them back from Dallas to Northern California myself. No real medical issues other than dealing with a very stinky diaper on the two-year-old. I am not sure what they were feeding that boy, but I was surprised that the oxygen masks did not suddenly emerge from the ceiling.
From the time she was two years old, my wife and I would always take our granddaughter Shelby with us to medical conferences. We took her to Atlanta, Albuquerque and Washington, D.C. on separate trips, and she did fine. Kids have no fear of flying, but my wife is a real white-knuckler. Shelby would laugh and squeal during turbulence. My wife would silently pray.
Perhaps the biggest issue that I encounter with flying is “airplane ears” — a term for barometric pressure-related ear pain, usually on descent. I have had it myself a few times. I blogged about it a few years ago, remembering a time while landing in Detroit. There was a sudden change in altitude to the point that my ears were going to explode. My elderly seatmate, thinking that I was freaking out over the rapid descent (a little), started rubbing my arms.
“It will be okay, Honey. I have been in worst situations that this,” she said.
My ear pain lasted several days, no matter what I tried to do. When I couldn’t hear for a few days, I even visited the audiology department of the university to see if I ruptured my eardrum. I didn’t. Several annoying days later, my painful ears returned to normal.
When our eustachian tubes fail to regulate that middle ear pressure, pain or at least, pressure will develop. We try to swallow (they usually take your drink away before landing), chew gum (if we have it), or hold our nose and blow called a Valsalva maneuver), but this doesn’t always work. If you have a long-standing history of airplane ears, you might take a decongestant before flying, but this, too, doesn’t always work.
At the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference several years ago, I was introduced to the EarPopper, an electronic device to correct this barometric pressure issue. You simply put the battery-powered blower in one side of your nose, plug the other nostril, and push the button as you swallow. This EarPopper sends air up the Eustachian tubes and equalizes the painful pressure. It works. It can even help kids with middle ear fluid, ear fullness due to colds/allergies, and those adventuresome people who like to scuba dive. The device is not cheap (about $200), but neither is a trip to your doctor. If you have a child that is on the verge of getting tubes because of middle ear effusion (fluid), then this little device may delay or even eliminate the need for surgery. Tube insertions, although covered by most insurances, costs several thousand dollars.
I hadn’t thought much about the EarPopper recently, until I got a call from Anya Clowers, RN, who wrote the little book, Jet with Kids – a brave woman who has traveled to over 16 countries with her child. She had been reading my blog, reading the posting on my Ears, Nose and Throat Community board, and tracked me down. Since she lives in a neighboring town, we met for coffee the other day to have a meeting of the minds. Of course, I forgot that we had a meeting, and had to do one of those jump-in-shower, get dressed, grab the car keys, and exceed the speed limit trips to Starbucks. I was only a half-hour late, but upset that I had forgotten our meeting.
She is an expert on airline safety when it comes to kids. Two enjoyable hours later, we covered the gamut of flying with kids, from picking the best airline seat restraints to using the EarPopper . She loves this device and doesn’t leave home without it. We talked about airlines making my Dirty Dozen list as one of the most unsanitary places. We talked about kid’s health issues in general and shared pearls. She gave me one of her books, and I will send her one of mine. I had a difficult time telling stories since she is an avid reader of my blog. She knew more about me and my family than most of my friends.
You can just about count on kids getting sick when you travel. Not only do kids practice Third World hygiene, they do not have the immune system that can withstand bombardment from the new pathogens they are likely to encounter on the way in the plane, or once they arrive at the destination. Every community has their own variety of circulating germs, and it is those new germs that cause havoc a day or so after you arrive. Parents need to just expect that kids will be getting sick, and stop belly-aching (no pun intended) when the inevitable illness emerges.
With the exception of some grandparent trips in the future, my traveling-with-kids days are probably over. I need someone to write a book about traveling with three, active dogs (not on plane)… or a white-knuckled wife.
How do you handle airplane ears and plane travel with kids? Post your comments and questions on the Ear, Nose & Throat Community.