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Flying with a Cold or Flu

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Flying with a Cold

Flights are usually booked at least weeks, if not months, in advance. Being struck with a cold just before flying can add extra stress, as it's not a pleasant experience. But we're here to help! Discover airline policiestop tips and FAQs about flying with a cold or the flu!

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Flying with a Cold or the Flu

Flying can cause cold or flu symptoms to worsen and the experience can be very unpleasant; however, there are simple steps that can be taken to help make flying more bearable. Check out our top tips to help you feel more comfortable when flying with a cold.

Quick Take-Away Points

1. In most instances, it is safe for passengers to fly with symptoms associated with the common cold or flu

2. For more moderate to severe conditions, check in with your doctor to ensure it is safe for you to fly 

3. Be aware that an airline can stop passengers who appear to be very sick from flying, so check with your airline that you will be allowed to fly - more information below!

Everything You Need to Know about Flying with a Cold or the Flu

What causes a cold?

A cold, or 'common cold', is an upper respiratory tract infection which can be caused by a number of different viruses. The cold is transmitted by virus-infected airborne droplets or through direct contact with infected bodily secretions. The common cold is a self-limited disease which can cause discomfort. Common symptoms include a bad cough, agitated sinuses, a sore throat, sneezing, and a runny nose. Over-the-counter medication can help relieve symptoms.

What causes the flu?

The flu is caused by influenza viruses that can infect the nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms can include headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, dry coughs, chills, a sore throat, a runny nose, fatigue or nasal congestion. The flu is also transmitted by virus-infected airborne droplets or through direct contact with infected bodily secretions. Treatment can include antiviral medicine which helps reduce symptoms.

Is it safe to fly with a cold or the flu?

In most cases, it is safe to travel if fighting a mild cold; however, the experience may be uncomfortable. When you're in a plane, especially during take off and landing, the external air pressure (the pressure outside your sinuses and middle ear) changes more rapidly than your internal air pressure (the pressure inside your sinuses and inner ear). This can result in symptoms including pain, dizziness, congested sinuses, or dulled hearing. 

Symptoms can be worse if you have existing respiratory conditions such as allergies or asthma. 

When should I postpone travel due to a cold or flu?

Nobody wants to miss out on a trip they've been looking forward to, and it can be a very tough decision to postpone or change your plans. However, authoritative bodies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US and the NHS in the UK sets out the following guidelines to help you decide whether you are fit to travel. It is recommended that you do not fly, or seek professional medical advice before travelling if you are experiencing a combination of a fever of 100°F (37.7°C) upwards or/and any of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • A severe ear, sinus or nose infection
  • An infectious disease that's easily transmissible  
  • Noticeable signs of sickness, such as physical weakness
  • A skin rash or lesions
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent, severe cough
  • Persistent diarrhoea
  • Persistent vomiting that’s the result of your sickness
  • Skin and eyes turning yellow or noticeable discolouration
People inside commercial aeroplane

Can an airline stop passengers with a Cold or Flu from flying?

It is important to note that an airline has the right to refuse a passenger if staff believe that the passenger meets the following conditions: if the passenger could be considered a potential safety hazard, might require medical attention during the flight, has a condition that might deteriorate during the flight, or could interfere with the comfort and welfare of the crew members or other passengers.

This still applies to those who believe that have recovered from an illness, including as a severe cold or flu, but still show obvious signs of being unwell.

If you are worried that you or someone you are travelling with might be denied boarding, you should carry a letter from your GP that confirms that you are fit to travel. It is also important to contact your airline beforehand to seek medical advice, as every airline has different policies regarding the right to deny boarding.

Top Tips for Flying with a Cold

It is crucial to contact your airline before heading to the airport, as rules and policies vary. Some airlines will insist on seeing a fit-to-fly note from a doctor.

To help you understand the rules of some of the major airlines, we have composed a list with an overview of their policies.

Aircraft landing at an airport

Practical advice to help make flying with a cold bearable

1. Stay Hydrated

If you have a cold, it is important to stay hydrated! This will be important to helping to stop the Eustachian tube from drying up. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, and sip lots of room temperature water. Green tea or lemon can also be very soothing. 

2. Pack Gum

Chew gum or hard candy during your flight, especially during take-off and landing, to help equalise pressure. Moving your jaw and swallowing can help open the Eustachian tube and help change the pressure in your throat.  

3. Carry Medication

Take a decongestant that contains pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed) 30 minutes before takeoff. Carry medication in your carry-on allowance. A full guide on travelling with medication can be found here. We recommend that you bring vitamins with you on board to help ease the discomfort in your journey. Vitamin C is a great option when you have a cold.

4. Practice Good Wellbeing

Make sure you pack tissues and any other items that might help you travel more comfortably, such as cough drops and lip balm. It is important to keep stretching to help relax your muscles. Check out our full guide to well-being on a flight.

5. Ask for Cabin Crew Assistance 

If you require any help when flying with the 'common cold', cabin crew are willing to assist you with any support you may need. The cabin crew may offer sick bags or water for your flight journey.

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How do I stop clogged ears?

One of the major challenges when flying with a cold is the likelihood of experiencing clogged ears. This is especially true during take off and landing. The Eustachian tube connects the inner ear with the back of the throat and works to balance the pressure between the outside air and your body. When the cabin pressure in the plane changes, these tubes will, usually, work to keep your inner pressure stabilised. However, if you have a cold, mucus membranes can swell or become irritated, making it harder for air to escape your ears. This can lead to discomfort and the sensation of having 'clogged' ears. 

Doctors suggest that passengers use a decongestant before boarding, which helps reduce the swelling in the mucus membrane and makes it easier for air to move through the tubes.

There are also earplugs that are made especially for flying which you might also find helpful. These plugs have filters that help the ears adjust to changing pressure in a plane cabin. 

Top Tip: More advice can also be found in our guide to aeroplane headaches.

Can I cancel my flights due to sickness?

Sadly, an airline might not be sympathetic about your last-minute need to cancel your flight due to the onset of sickness. Whether you receive a refund will depend on the terms and conditions of your flight ticket. In some cases, it might help your chances to get a sick note from your doctor stating that you are not fit to fly, although it depends on the rules of each airline. 

If you have booked your flights through Alternative Airlines, you can contact our customer service team for more information regarding the cancellation policy of your airline ticket. You can also choose to use the 'Refundable Flights' filter so that you know whether you are booking refundable tickets - but again, check the terms and conditions as there may be time periods for cancellation etc.

Can I travel with an ear infection?

It's not recommended that you should fly whilst suffering from an ear infection. If you can it is best to change the dates you plan to travel in order to avoid serious ear problems. Please speak to your doctor for professional advice before flying with a sinus/ear infection.

Find out more about flying with an ear infection.

How to tell you are too unwell to fly?

Travelling while sick is not recommended as you are at risk of feeling worse and infecting other passengers on the flight. You should not be flying if you have shortness of breath, a racing heart or could be contagious. The pressurized cabin has less air, meaning your body can take less oxygen. Therefore, we recommend delaying your flight until you are feeling fit to fly.

Can I fly with a baby who has a cold?

Flying with a baby who has a cold is usually okay, as long as the baby is not at risk of developing a serious infection. However, we do recommend talking to a doctor before flying with your baby in order to maintain full safety.

If you're flying with a baby who is feeling unwell, we advise that you breastfeed or bottle-feed during ascending and descending on the aircraft as this will help the baby's ear pressure to adjust to the changes.