Vertigo After Flying: Causes, Prevention, and Treatments

18 Mar 2024, by

Dr. Lusine Badalian

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Vertigo after flying is a condition that can affect anyone who has recently traveled by air. It results from changes in air pressure, ear canal issues, and dehydration, leading to feelings of dizziness and imbalance. Risk factors include a history of migraines, inner ear disorders, and age. Treatment varies from over-the-counter medications and physical therapy to lifestyle changes and preventive measures. Understanding these aspects can help individuals prepare for and mitigate the effects of vertigo after flying, enhancing their travel experience.

vertigo after flying

Causes of Vertigo After Flying

Can flying cause vertigo? Absolutely, and understanding these causes is the first step towards managing and preventing the condition effectively.

Changes in Air Pressure

One common cause of vertigo after flying stems from changes in cabin pressure. When an airplane ascends or descends, the air pressure inside the cabin alters to balance with the atmospheric pressure outside. This rapid change can affect the inner ear, where balance is regulated. The inner ear contains small organs that help the brain understand the body's position. If the pressure changes are too abrupt, these organs can become confused, sending mixed signals to the brain and causing feelings of dizziness or vertigo.

Ear Canal Issues

The Eustachian tube, a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, plays a crucial role in maintaining equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. During flights, especially during takeoff and landing, this tube can sometimes fail to open properly due to the fast changes in altitude and air pressure. This can lead to a pressure imbalance, affecting the ear's vestibular system and leading to vertigo. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, airplane ear (ear barotrauma) is the stress on your eardrum that occurs when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. You might get airplane ear when on an airplane that's climbing after takeoff or descending for landing. Individuals with existing ear canal issues are particularly susceptible to experiencing vertigo after flying due to this reason.

Dehydration

Flying can also lead to dehydration due to the low humidity levels in airplane cabins. Dehydration can thin the blood and decrease the pressure inside the vessels, which can adversely affect the inner ear and its ability to maintain balance. This condition can exacerbate or trigger vertigo in susceptible individuals.

Vertigo After Flying: How Long Does It Last?

The duration of vertigo after flying can vary significantly from one person to another. For most, the symptoms are short-lived, lasting only a few hours to a couple of days. 
However, in cases where vertigo is triggered by more significant issues, such as a severe imbalance in ear pressure or an underlying condition, symptoms could last longer. 

It's crucial to monitor the situation and consult a healthcare professional if vertigo persists or is accompanied by more severe symptoms, such as hearing loss or extreme disorientation. As an initial step in understanding your symptoms, the Docus Symptom Checker can provide insights, though it's essential to seek professional advice for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing vertigo after flying:

  • History of Migraines: Individuals who suffer from migraines may be more sensitive to changes in pressure and can experience vertigo as part of their symptoms.
  • Inner Ear Disorders: Conditions affecting the inner ear, such as Meniere's disease or vestibular neuritis, can make one more susceptible to vertigo.
  • Motion Sickness: Those who are prone to motion sickness might find flying particularly challenging and may experience vertigo as part of their motion sickness symptoms.
  • Age: Older adults may have a higher risk of vertigo due to the natural aging of the inner ear and its components.
  • Previous Episodes: People who have experienced vertigo before, regardless of the cause, may be more likely to experience it again after flying.


Understanding these risk factors can help individuals prepare and possibly prevent vertigo after flying by taking appropriate precautions, such as staying hydrated, performing ear pressure-equalizing exercises, and consulting a doctor before flying if they have a history of ear or balance disorders.

Complications of Vertigo After Flying

Vertigo, particularly when experienced after flying, can sometimes lead to complications if not properly managed. These complications can range from mild inconveniences to more severe health issues:

  • Increased Risk of Falls and Injury: The disorienting effects of vertigo can make maintaining balance a challenge, increasing the likelihood of falls. This is especially concerning for older adults, for whom a fall could result in significant injuries.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Severe cases of vertigo can induce nausea and vomiting, leading to dehydration and, in prolonged instances, nutritional deficiencies.
  • Reduced Quality of Life: Persistent vertigo can affect one's ability to perform daily activities, work, and enjoy life, potentially leading to anxiety and depression.
  • Impact on Hearing: In rare cases, vertigo after flying could be linked to conditions that also affect hearing, ranging from temporary hearing loss to more permanent damage.


Prompt treatment and preventive measures are key to minimizing these complications and ensuring a swift recovery from vertigo after flying.

How to Treat Vertigo After Flying?

Addressing vertigo after flying involves a range of treatment options, tailored to the severity and underlying causes of the condition.

Over-the-Counter Solutions

  • Antihistamines and Anticholinergics: These medications can help control nausea and motion sickness, common symptoms associated with vertigo. They work by blocking certain pathways in the brain that trigger these symptoms.
  • Decongestants: If vertigo is related to pressure changes affecting the ear, decongestants may help by reducing swelling in the nasal passages and the Eustachian tubes, facilitating easier pressure equalization.

Prescription Medications

For more severe cases, prescription medications may be necessary:

  • Benzodiazepines: Occasionally prescribed for their sedative effects which can help alleviate the sensation of spinning.
  • Steroids: In cases where inflammation is contributing to vertigo, steroids can be prescribed to reduce swelling and improve ear function.

Physical Therapy

Vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT) is a specialized form of physical therapy aimed at strengthening the vestibular system, which is responsible for maintaining balance. VRT can be particularly effective for those whose vertigo is caused by issues with the inner ear.

Epley Maneuver

The Epley maneuver is a simple yet effective exercise that can be performed at home or by a healthcare professional. It's designed to move the calcium deposits that can cause vertigo from one part of the ear to another, where they can be more easily absorbed by the body.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Making certain lifestyle changes can also significantly impact the management of vertigo symptoms:

  • Staying well-hydrated, especially when flying, to avoid dehydration that can worsen symptoms.
  • Performing simple exercises to improve balance and reduce the likelihood of vertigo episodes.

 

For a preliminary assessment of your symptoms and to explore potential causes and treatments, consider using the Symptom Checker

Prevention of Vertigo After Flying

Taking preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of experiencing vertigo after flying:

  • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your flight to prevent dehydration.
  • Ear Pressure Equalization Techniques: Chewing gum, yawning, and swallowing during ascent and descent can help balance the pressure in your ears.
  • Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine: These substances can exacerbate dehydration and potentially increase the risk of vertigo.
  • Select Seats Away from the Wing: These seats tend to experience less motion during the flight, which may help reduce the risk of motion sickness leading to vertigo.
  • Use of Earplugs: Specially designed earplugs for flying can help moderate the changes in air pressure and reduce the likelihood of ear barotrauma.


Incorporating these practices can help manage and reduce the chances of vertigo after flying, ensuring a more comfortable and enjoyable travel experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Vertigo after flying can result from changes in air pressure, issues with the ear canal, and dehydration.
  • The duration of vertigo after flying varies, with most cases resolving within a few hours to a couple of days. Persistent symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
  • Risk factors for vertigo after flying include a history of migraines, inner ear disorders, motion sickness, age, and previous episodes of vertigo.
  • Treatment options range from over-the-counter medications and physical therapy to specific maneuvers like the Epley maneuver and lifestyle adjustments.
  • Prevention strategies include staying hydrated, using ear pressure equalization techniques, avoiding alcohol and caffeine before flights, and selecting seats with less motion.
  • For initial symptom assessment, the Docus Symptom Checker can offer valuable insights, but it's crucial to consult a healthcare provider for a comprehensive diagnosis and treatment plan.

 

If you want to read more about vertigo, we have an article about Sinus Infection Vertigo.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can flying cause vertigo?

Yes, flying can cause vertigo due to the rapid changes in air pressure, which affect the inner ear, a key player in maintaining balance. The condition known as "airplane ear" or ear barotrauma can contribute to this sensation.

How long does vertigo after flying last?

The duration of vertigo after flying varies from person to person. While most individuals find relief within a few hours to days, those with underlying conditions or severe cases may experience symptoms for a longer period. Consulting a healthcare provider is recommended if symptoms persist.

What are the treatment options for vertigo after flying?

Treatment for vertigo after flying includes over-the-counter medications for immediate relief of symptoms like nausea, prescription medications for more severe cases, vestibular rehabilitation therapy for inner ear issues, the Epley maneuver for specific types of vertigo, and lifestyle adjustments to manage and prevent symptoms. Additionally, employing preventive measures before and during flights can help reduce the likelihood of vertigo occurrences.

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