Airplane headache: Why it occurs and how to stop it

Airplane headache! Yep, it’s real. It’s also know as “high altitude headache”. But it doesn’t matter how you call it, it’s hurtful anyways.

I didn’t experience it but my boyfried did on our last trip to France. What was it like? A sharp pain in the sinuses, so strong it was scary as hell. So he felt it on our second flight landing in Paris from Munich.

It lasted for a good 3-4 hours. We never knew what was it until we read about it when we got back home a week after. My boyfriend felt the same sharp pain on our way back to Sofia, on the second flight again, when landing. It lasted less then.

So what have we learnt about airplane headache?

We are not experts but according to our own web research, High Altitude Headache occurs more often during landing. It develops within 24 hours after ascent and resolves within eight hours of descent.

It covers at least two of the following charasteristics: Bilaterial, Frontal or frontotemporal (at the front of the head in the region of the temples), Dull or pressing quality, Mild or moderate intensity, Aggravated by exertion, movement, straining, coughing, or bending.

Some info says that the symptoms rarely last more than one hour. The pain has been described as jabbing, stabbing, shooting, bursting, pressing, piercing and sharp in quality. As for why airplane headaches occur, scientists think it’s due to an imbalance between the air pressure in the cabin and those in the frontal sinuses.

The exact cause of airplane headaches remain unclear, but it’s likely due to several factors such as the shape of the sinuses, as well as the speed of the aircraft, cabin pressure, and even the maximum altitude reached.

How to prevent airplane headache

We read a lot about it and the most common ways to prevent airplane headache are:

  • Stay hydrated before, during and after your flight;
  • Chew gum – this would help while the cabin pressure is changing;
  • Avoid alcohol (especially wine) and caffeine – these two can trigger the headache;
  • Take sinus medications – some spray, nasal cream should help before the flight.

So have you ever experienced an airplane headache? What was it like the first time you had it?

Update (January 2018): Since that time we never experienced airplane headache again. Our flight routine now includes chewing gum as fast as possible on take off and landing, and staying hydrated during the flight. We noticed that a pain occurs when we have a mild cold so it better be treated before flying. 

Written by

Travel blogger and tourism graduate from Bulgaria, working in the field of Digital Marketing and PR for travel brands.

Latest comments
  • Avatar

    One thing I had after flights (especially long-haul flights) was eye ache accompanied with headache.
    The jet noise can be bothering on long flights.

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    I had airplane headache every time the plane is landing, especially in the airports near the sea or big lakes. It starts from the left or right ear and move above to forefront or right in the eye. It is very paining, terrible. I feel like stop breathing.

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    pain is horriffic landing in bangkok last week i busted the blood vessells in both eyeys real scarey 6th day starting to come good

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      Hi,

      Not sure this conversation is still being followed, but… I flew from Vienna to Frankfurt yesterday and as the plane started its descent I had a feeling as if someone was ripping the bone above my left eye out of my head … It was terrible and there was nothing I could do. I had a swollen eye, I could not sleep well and my eyes are still not OK (20 hours later). Although this was not the first occurence, it was by far the most severe. now I can’t wait for my return flight… and a week later I’m flying again… ugh… I’d rather drive.

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    Yes, I just had my first airplane headache and it was likely one of the worst painful experience in my life. I didn’t know what was happening and why. I got a horrid sharp jabbing pain at my left brow/eye area. This happened while beginning the landing (SJC to SAN). It was a very short flight. I was fine until plane started to land. I am a somewhat healthy 60 yr old woman. I will say I had not flown in years, and last year (July 2016) I got a severe sinus infection. I never seem to totally recover to normal. Still experience congestion but no recurring infection. I go home tomorrow (SAN back to SJC) and I’m worried. I will take a decongestion, (12 hour acting) one hour before boarding. The pain is such a horrible one that I don’t know if I ever want to fly again after I get home!

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        The decongestant worked! I took about one hour before flight. I also drank lots of water, and ate the peanuts they offer. I didn’t have gum.

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    The decongestant worked! I took one hour before flight. No headache and felt just fine during descent from 40k feet. I was also careful to drink lots of water.

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    Never heard of it..until yesterday when I experienced it. I jumped up and said’ do you guys feel that’ and waited for oxygen masks to drop. Thank goodness people have shared this online. Thank you…I’m drinking water now…chewing gum and ready to take a nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drug..like ibuprofen…and nasal spray …as I am boarding to go home soon. Thanks for sharing may we never experience this again.

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    22 yr old female who travels a lot. just recently starting to get airplane headaches – they usually last 40 or so minutes before landing and then intensify dueing landing. It’s an extremely sharp stabbing pain. I was worried i was popping some vessels in my brain the first time it happened because it was such a sharp pain I head never expierenced in the front area of my left side forehead and then the right eyebrow area. It stops as soon as we land. Was hoping to find something to help it, I’ll definitely try more water and gum.

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    Just had one a few hours ago. Felt like something burst above left eyebrow. Really painful And actually passed out. Scared a lot of PEOple on my flight! Including my pregnant wife!

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        I have been experiencing the pain often during landing and what i have started doing when it feel like its hitting you, immediately tilt your head backwards and look up until the pain resides.

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    Thank you for sharing this! I have had about 4 airplane headaches in my life. (Oddly enough two of them happened in thailand and i noticed another commentor had one in thailand. I wonder if there’s something about air travel in thailand that triggers them) The last time i got one, i had a glass of wine before. now i definitely wont be drinking wine on a flight again! These are so terrifying. I honestly thought i was going to die last time. I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, sO i will try these tricks. Thanks!!

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    I HAVE HAD A FEW OF THESE HORRIBLE PAINFUL EPISODES I DO NOT WISH THIS PAIN ON MY WORST ENEMY. IT IS A PAIN THAT FEELS LIKE MY EYEBALL IS GOING TO POP OUT I HEAR LIKE CRACKING NOISE IN MY HEAD ALL I CAN DO IS CRY, I CHEWED A WHOLE PACK OF GUM, I YAWNED THE WHOLE DESEND UGH HORRIBLE I TELL YOU… I ACTUALLY HAVE A TRIP 11 HOURS TO ISRAEL IN 2 WEEKS AND I REALLY DO NOT WANT TO GO BECAUSE OF THIS HORRIBLE PAIN I HATE TO TRAVEL BECUASE OF THIS EXCRUTIATING PAIN…. UGH SCARED TO GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN…. I WILL BE TRYING THE DECONGESTING MED AND CLEANING OF SINUSES TO SEE IF IT WORKS.

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    I AM GLAD TO KNOW THAT I AM NOT ALONE IN THIS. Had my third episode of the headache yesterday, during a 1hr flight. the pain was terrible (stabbing, shooting pains). I was chewing gum, just before the pain started; but i had to stop because of the pain. it started from the right ear and spread to my entire head and jaw, including my tongue. i felt like my breathing was going to stop. it occurred 19hrs ago and i still feel the discomfort. in addition, i feel kinda drowsy. guess it would get better. thank you for sharing your experience

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    Just recovered from mild cold. guess that could have responsible.

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    My husband has had around 3 of them until i researched it. His last flight was one year ago and we did decongestants a few days before every day, 24 hours prior did advil and the morning of did advil, did nasal spray right before flight and prior to landing and finally drank two waters before flight and water during flight, He felt good. flying again next week and will do the same thing praying it works becuase to see him in this pain is so scary. i feel for you people that this happens to. Good Luck

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    Hello folks,
    I’m also a victim of this unfortunate situation ! I Flew to N.Y and for the first time felt this super scary felling … than again fLying to CHicago and lastly to NOrth CaRolina, which has resulted in driving back home rather than flying. I tried all the remedies stated on prior post but nothing works! Any advice ??

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      I am no sinus expert but this simple trick has been working for me lately. During descent, whenever you feel that its going to hit, immediately tilt head backwards and look up and breathe through nose but can keep mouth open. Continue looking up until you think its safe.

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    I am flying soon, and will get some decongestant, but my headaches have been happening well after the landing. on our last 3 holidays i’m getting headaches a few hours or a day after landing and they last from 15hours to 36hours. I’m trying to see if they are linked to the flight or I’m just headache prone. its not much fun for my partner.

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    It always happens to me when landing the last 20minutes. The pain is so bad i want to Cry. 1st time it happened i thou i was going to die. I will try the recomendaTIons Later.

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    Great literature. I am doctor and specialist in internal medicine. I suffer every time I travel by air. 10 years ago I went to eye specialist for this flight headache problem he said it’s because of pressure difference and take chewing gum before takeoff and landing.
    Pain is severe even I hit my forehead with punches, terrible

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    I have been flying between Johannesburg and Durban countless times but yesterday, as soon as the plane started it’s descent, I felt a very sharp pain just above my left eye and honestly, it was unbearable. It felt better after landing but did not completely go away. 12 hours later I still have episodes but not as intense. Also, my left nostril is now blocked and I can’t fall asleep from the pain invoice the eye

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    I had this airplane headache twice . It was like something moving inside my head from my right eye to my forehead AND
    I realised Alcohol is triggering this horrible pain especially whiskey .
    I’m 25 years old .

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    I got my first Airplane headache 3 years ago. Before that, I never experienced it. The first time I felt it, I thought I got heart attack / stroke / something. I was panic. When the airplane decreased the altitude (mostly an hour / 30 mins before landing), I had pain around my left eye (above my eye brow). It felt like someone stabbed my left eye brow with needles and burning! I was dealing with this pain for 30 mins, and gradually gone after landing. It happened again on the second landing.

    I did research on the internet about what I experienced, and seems like it is kinda rare (not alot of people experience this airplane headache).

    I am still experiencing this, only on my left eye brow. Now, I always bring a nasal spray and use it an hour before landing. It helps alot. Sometime I don’t feel the pain during landing. Even if the pain occurred, it doesn’t hurt that much as before.

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    When I experienced this terrible pain for the first time, I was clueless about the reason behind it, thought that something might have been wrong with me at that particular time, but then I started experiencing this frequently while travelling by air. This is not just related to air, the first time I experienced this pain was when I did scuba diving. So the change in pressure is definitely the biggest factor to cause this pain. I have also googled a lot but no strong biological reason has been found yet. I will try Chewing gum next time for sure, as being hydrated didn’t help me recently. Lets hope we get a permanent cure to this horrible pain.

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    This is definitely triggered by colds. I travel for work and as such fly regularly. never had this happen, although I used to get ear pains until I learned to hold my nose and gently pop my ears. Had a cold over the weekend and was flying back from Dallas to Atlanta when it hit suddenly. Think I passed out as well, but it felt better once we landed. Got it again since I was back on a flight a day or two later. This time once I tried blowing my nose, I could feel the pressure escape suddenly through my nostril and the pain immediately subsided. Little tip for those suffering this due to colds.

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    I suffered really bad from this kind of headache, first whilst descending into Kefalonia, and then the whole journey back to England. The pain was so severe I was close to screaming, and had to hold the palms of my hands into my eyeballs. I couldn’t stop crying.

    I would have rather of been knocked out!

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    Hi,
    i think i have it, now five days after flying. Flying back from Turkey on descending to Manchester Airport i got sharp pains shooting across my forehead lasting 2 hours, got home took painkillers. Next day still head ache took 2 pills eased off. Sunday and monday the same. Tuesday woke up at 6am with the same pain took pills didn’t go and took more pills eased off but still there all day. Wednesday today as been the same as Tuesday and still here at 22.23pm. More pills before bed.
    First time this as happened to me and on a short flight as well. I have done long flights , no problem. Maybe cause i am older? i don’t know. I wish it had only been for a couple of hours.

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    I observe that I always feel this sharp and throbbing pain every time the plain starts to descend. It usually starts in my neck, then the back of my air until my ears pop, and crawls unto my temple and in front of my forehead and eyebrows. I just flew hours ago and I still have the pain for 8 hours now. It becomes severe when I tilt my head and sneezes. I can’t work very well because the pain is still there. Thanks for this article. It might be useful for my next trips.

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    About a month ago we flew from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, first landed in Sao Paulo. The last 30 min of the flight,when the plane started descending I felt this severe pain above my left eye on my brow,. it was burning like hell..i thought i was having a stroke!!!! After landing it disappeared, but the area above my brow stayed tender to my touch. After 2 hours we flew to Buenos Aires. The exactly same thing happened when the plane started descending. This time I knew I was not about to die!! It also worsened in intensity, my left eye started watering as well and my nose started running. And when we landed it was over. It was one of the worst experiences in my life!!
    After a day or two I did some research..and read somewhere you have to chew gum.I wasnt looking forward to the flights back home. So I chew gum on all my 3 flights back home and thankfully it did not happen again!!!

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    Glad I’m not alone. This has happened to me about 10 times. The best way to describe this is someone slowly dragging a knife across your forehead. You can feel it come up both sides of my neck, and waves of violent stabbing in my eyebrows. A few times were so excruciating I couldn’t even cry. I just put my hands to my face and accepted my death.
    The pain was a 10/10. Like cutting off your finger.

    After that, I got these earplugs called “ear planes” and they stay in the entire flight. Hurt your ears a bit if the flight is long. But the pain is only a 7/10 after using them. Still feels like I’m being sadistically tortured as I’m sweating, but it’s the best I can do. Now it happens 50% of the time. I just can’t believe no one knows about this!!!

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    I flew from Liverpool to isle of man and as soon as I landed I got a headache , it feels like a brick on my head ,I’ve had it ever since, plus am scared of flying ,any suggestions

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    I don’t like flying but we flew from Liverpool to the isle of man ,as soon as we landed I started with a headache , it feels like pressure on the top of my head and still have it now 2 weeks later . I also suffer with sinusitus. Any suggestio

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    I started experiencing airplane headache about 5 years back. Prior to that I never had any problem on flights. The first time it happened, the flight was descending and preparing to land. I still remember the intensity and the sudden onset of extreme pain. I would rate it as 10/10 as well to the point of you feel like banging your head to distract from the pain in between your eyes. The intensity reduced once the plane landed however there is still residual dull pain (variable about 3-5/10) for the next couple of days and eventually gone. But it created the fear of flying due to not wanting to experiencing such pain again. It persisted a couple more times after that and pain meds didn’t help much. Later on I learnt how to scuba dive and they taught how to equalize your sinuses and eardrums as you descend into the water. I use the same technique to equalize my ear pressures and to date I have never experienced airplane headache again (fingers crossed!). To those who suffer from airplane headache, perhaps try this method and see if it works! Google around to learn about equalizing pressure. Chewing gum and swallowing your saliva are some of the simple techniques but read up on those used in scuba. It may work for you as well.

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    I get them occasionally on landing, last about two minutes. So bad I usually give the person beside me a heads-up and not to be concerned when they see me distressed.
    I suffer from mild congestion and sinus problems anyway. I assume the low pressure at altitude let’s the gaps between the little bones and cartilage, or whatever make up the sinus area, increase and expand and fluid fills the gaps. Returning to high pressure at ground level begins to compress everything back to normal causing excruciating pain.
    Will try the tilted head trick. Not sure if cabin pressure at altitude varies between airlines? I presume maintaining a high pressure is more expensive for them.

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    Thank you for this post. I experienced this for the second time yesterday. It was as if there was something exploding in the left side of my head, there was sharp pain in the left eyeball, it felt as if it was about to pop, then it got teary. The pain was unbearable and diminished slowly. I might have appeared to others I just got emotional, but I wished there to be some medical help in the airport. But there wasn’t anybody to approach at that late hour.

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    I had my first airplane headache last year flying to Sardinia. I honestly thought I was going to die, the pain was so bad. Like a lightning strike in my brain. Coming home no problem, then two weeks ago flying to Greece I had another episode as the plane started to lose altitude and the pain was all on the right side of my head right down into my jaw. Pure agony.
    Thanks for your research Maria, Sounds like you’ve found the cause with the sinus solution. I’ll try everything and hope for the best!
    Ps.
    I have no after effects and the pain lasts only an hour or so.

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    I was on a flight from Dubai, to Manchester. Upon descent I had felt a slight tickle on my left eyebrow, until suddenly I felt like my life was going to end due to the severe stabbing pains I was experiencing. Crippling facial paralysis I could describe it as, with jabbing pains. I did not even think to try chewing gum, blowing nose, or using a nasal decongestant I thought I was having a brain aneurysm.

    It is quite interesting how so many peoples stories are so similar, in terms of pain still lasting post-flight, as well as the locations on the face people have described where the pains start. I would like to mention however, stress may be a likely cause as I was having severe episodes of stress prior to my flight, as well as potentially not having a fully cleared up mild cold I contracted.

    I will definetley ensure to try the gum trick, and blowing nose. I believe my other potential factor that caused this was poor neck posture, as well as sleeping as the plane was landing which was a terrible idea. I have really been put off from flying back home, but will ensure to have a friend or family with me next time I fly as I was alone, and thought I was about to die.

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    I have this most terrible headache about 45 minutes into the flight. The pain is located on my left brow area and behind my eye, the pain is so severe I can barely speak and lasts until the plane starts to descend. My symptoms seem to be the same as other fellow sufferers have experienced on landing, but lasting the whole cruising altitude. I have had scans that show nothing abnormal and pain killers don’t touch it. Would be interested if anyone else is familiar with my symptoms. Really don’t want to give up travelling!

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    My husband, avid traveler since he was a very young child, just had his first airplane headache in December 2019 on the way from Orlando to Montreal. Same as many, it suddenly began as the plane began its descent. Over the left eyeball. He couldn’t even talk; could only hold his hand to his head and try to breath through it. By the time the plane landed he could talk again but the pain was still there for about another hour, but much reduced. We had a connecting flight from there and, upon landing in Vienna, he experienced a milder form of the headache again (although nothing at all like the first one). Luckily did not experience anything on our return flights at all. Thank you all for your advice and, like the others, for validating this is a “thing” that happens.

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    I just stumbled on your article,i am about to catch a flight and the fear of experiencing the headache again got me researching.I had the headache for the first time on the 27th on December 2019, i had to experience it twice that day because i had a connecting flight. It was terrible, i felt like i was dying. The Pain i had moved from the back of my neck, into my head. I honestly thought that was my last day on earth.

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