Friday, August 24, 2012

Aerosinusitis - aka Plane Brain.

About four months ago during the descent on a flight to Hobart in Tasmania, I really thought I was going to die. There was no engine failure, or electrical storms, or big hairy Muslim-cum-terrorist sweating profusely next to me and fidgeting non-stop. None of that. It was ten times worse. My brain felt like it was going to explode.

It came from nowhere. My pea size brain suddenly pounded to the size of a tennis ball, as some mysterious force pierced my skull with a three inch wide needle, and then played the hokey-kokey inside. And whilst all this was going on, someone then stuck a dagger right into my mouth where I had a filling the day before. This lasted for fifteen whole, long, minutes.   

If you're a woman reading this, you are probably thinking this was a bad version of man flu or something, but I am not alone:

"The first time I experienced this, I thought I was dying. I ran around the airport looking for a doctor. I thought I was having a brain hemorrhage. The most intense pain imaginable, like having boiling water injected in to my forehead spreading down to my eye very scary." Read more:  
I had put it down as a one off. I firmly believed that it was down to the butcher of a dentist I had visited the day before. She was pure evil. She had actually started to drill into my mouth without an anaesthetic until I had screamed for mercy. Surely she had damaged a nerve and the drop in cabin pressure had triggered off the acute pain in the brain?

But then it happened again last week on a flight back from Brisbane. I was bent over rubbing my head, fighting back tears for the twenty tortuous minutes of the descent into Melbourne. I was paralysed.

"I never used to experience this when flying until about 18 months ago and since then anytime we're at about 20,000ft it starts behind my left eye and WOW it's agony ...first time it happened I almost asked the stewardess for a doctor as I genuinely thought there was something seriously wrong." Read more:
I obviously considered making an appointment with a brain surgeon for the following day. But first I thought I would google it.  I found the answer. Aerosinusitis. Or as the Daily Mail likes to dumb it down to: Plane Brain. Officially 'a painful inflammation and sometimes bleeding of the membrane of the para nasal sinus cavities'. It can be 'can be characterised by its severity and position on one side of the head and near the eye.'

"Thank you for printing this... and I thought it was just me... I always have appalling headaches when flying, particularly transatlantic, and despite all efforts to avert these headaches I still get them!" Read more:

It isn't dangerous, it's relatively common, and the best treatment is a decongestant - a common nasal spray. For future trips, I won't be leaving home without one.


  1. This just happened to me last night on the descent into New York, and I too thought that something seriously awful was going to happen -- aside from the excruciating paing that stemmed from what felt like my tooth/gums up through the side of my head -- on the right side. I was so shaken up once we landed. But am relieved to read this and glad that I googled it!

    - Sharyn from NY

    1. Hi Sharyn, the marvels of google! Pretty distressing isn't it? Simple decongestant works 100% I can confirm!



  2. And me!
    This morning JFK, NY to Manchester, UK. Mine started at the frontal area, spread to my temples, then moved to the back of my neck and throat (making it difficult to move) and then pain traveled to the top of my chest. The pain is so intense - awful. I was close to tears and almost asked for assistance too. Glad I googled the symptoms so that someone could give me an explanation! Although I don't think the term "plane brain" does the severity of the pain justice!

  3. It's been 3 years going that I first experienced this. I'm in a business development rols, covering sub-sahara Africa, and therefore, my work requires several short haul flights in a month. My first experience was as described by Bradley John above. Exactly similar experience, maybe a little worse!
    I'd been too scared to find out about this as it doesn't happen to me everytime, but today's experience was similar to my first, and I had to google "headaches during flight descent" that led me to this discussion.

    Thanks for all the comments. I'm going to get myself a decongestant, but I'd already left a message for my doctor friend as I thought I really need to put a stop to this

  4. I had experienced this 2 years prior to writing this post on a descent into Heathrow.

    Nasal Spray - Worked wonders on holidays since, Use twice a day for a week prior to your flight. What you are aiming to do is clear your nasal cavities.

    DO NOT - Swimming in depth after experiencing Aerosinusitis on a flight is the worst thing you can do, I experienced this first hand and many would if they were travelling to a holiday destination. It will cause you serious pain similar to that of the flight due to the pressure of the water.

    Hope this helps, Good luck!

  5. I had this happen a few weeks ago. I nearly stood up during the descent to get help because I thought something was literally exploding in my head. I truly believed my children would become orphans that day. Some young guy assured me it was from the flight, and I looked it up later. I had plenty of decongestants on the trip home.

  6. i have this problem since 5 years. it is the worst pain anyone can experience in their life especially when not using decongestants. the pain in the eyes is unimaginable, one might wish to die on the spot instead of suffering like this. the first time this happened my eyes were complete red, there was no white area visible and my temple was clearly inflamated. the blood vessels in my eyes were torned due to the cabin pressurization, that's why they were covered in red. i had headache for 2 weeks after that.

    since then i am using decongestants when flying but the problem is still there :( , less intense though.

    what i noticed is that when the landing is on a morning or daylight it is much worse than when the landing is on a night. so my advice is to use night landing flights, im sure the atmospheric pressure is different between day/night and this is affecting how serious is the aerosynusitis you will experience.

    seems that the airlines do not care to sort out this problem and find a method to make it less painful since most people are not affected by cabin pressurization.

  7. This has happened to me three times...twice descending into DFW and more recently on the descent on the PalmSprings Tramway. About halfway down (around the 5,000 ft level) I felt as if I had broken glass in my head and an axe was being plunged repeatedly into my skull. The pain was so excruciating that I freaked out everyone on the way down....literally thought i was having a brain anyerysm and going to die on the spot. The pain lasted thru the night. Thank you for this blog, I will ensure I have decongestants whenever I travel.

  8. This first started for me when i was about 13 years old on a plane descending in Chicago. As you can imagine i really freaked out as a kid and had no idea what it was. It was like no other pain I have ever felt. It would happen almost every time I fly after that first time and it wasn't until last year that I found the trick. I take an over the counter sinus headache pill about an hour before we land. It has worked every time.

  9. I had a similar experience. I am a nervous person when flying, but this happened to me the first time on a 2h flight during the night when I was most relaxed, almost falling asleep. Out of nowhere I felt this bursting pain in my forehead right above the left eyebrow, then thought it had gone away for half a second. But it came back sharper than ever, and I started panicking. I couldn't breathe properly, couldn't touch my forehead as it felt like fluid from the brain was trying to escape through the smallest hole in my skull, and I started feeling terribly nauseous and my eyesight was gone for a few seconds, with everything being really bright/white. I fainted for half a minute (apparently with my fist clenched onto my seat). When I regained consciousness, the stewards were around me with oxygen masks looking worried. I had to lie down and waited for the plane to land, the pain still being there. Paramedics came up in the plane and found nothing, but I went to the hospital the next day. The doctors gave me a CT scan and I also got a lumbar puncture to ensure that I didn't have a brain hemorrhage. Turns out this wasn't the case, and they concluded a sinusitis combined with a migraine. I still had a bit of pain in the forehead for the two following weeks but these might have been due to the lumbar puncture.
    Six months later, I had to take 4 planes to travel to my holidays destination and back. Very nervous as you can imagine. On the way there, I followed all of my GP's advices, including nasal sprays (before the plane and 30min before landing), chewing mints, paracetamol, using vaporub around my face etc. I experienced discomfort around the neck and tonsils strangely enough for the first two flights but nothing major. I took this as a victory and was very relaxed for my return flights thinking that time had just been a one off. I was wrong, as I experienced the same thing minus the fainting. It happened on both return flights, both short haul and long haul, with yet the same precautions as before. The pain was excruciating.
    I have had headaches ever since that very first incident, but these could be due to other underlying problems. I also developed some sort of constant vertigo thereafter. I have seen my ENT consultant who did a CT scan of my sinuses and realised that my frontal cavities are thinner than usual, which is in line with my experience of barotrauma. He told me I had 4 solutions: surgery involving drilling in the skull (apparently quite extreme and maybe not worth it), surgery involving an expanding balloon to gently break the sinuses' cavity walls (sorry for the lack of technical terms here!), steroid nasal spray to take everyday for 3 months minimum, or simply to consider alternative means of transportation. Currently considering the third option. Good luck to all of you aerosinusitis sufferers!

  10. It's extremely hard to find help online for this problem. I am on leave visiting family and i too had to experience this hellish pain that occured during descent. It was like needles stabbing into my eyebrow. I literally grabbed my eyebrow and tried to yank it off of my face. Well 30 seconds go by and the pain continues, so i held my nose with two fingers and blew out my ears, the pain was immediately relieved however something remained. Well here i am, Im laying in bed 2 days later, with the same pain. The needle occurs throughout the day and the aching on my eyebrow is continuous. The only remedy is a shower but it only seems to last 10 minutes. I just tried the nasal spray but am beggining to worry that this pain will still be here 3 days after the flight. Need advice! Thanks everyone

  11. I had a quite a few experiences like this in the past. My job requires lots of flying over the weekends. I used to have 6-7/10 flights giving me bad aerosinusitis. I've tried everything regarding nasal sprays and alternative methods in the past 3 years.
    This year I've decided to undergo a surgery so I haven't been flying since January. I've done the surgery beginning of April and i have my first flight coming next week. The worst thing is, experiences like this make you anxious, so im quite stressed on the turnout of my next flight.
    My CT scan showed i used to have a deviated septum, inflamation of all the sinuses + a cyst in left maxillary sinus.
    The surgeon took care of all of the above + cutting my inner nose shelves in half to help the breathing.
    After the surgery, which was done by private surgeon, i had no further complications such as infections etc.
    My breathing improved by far and i can already feel my sinuses are open and clear. Not a single painkiller was needed after the surgery, thankfully. Im still using Rhyno Horn twice a day to clean the nasal passages, along with "Nasonex" spray which is supposed to help healing the mucous.
    Technically speaking, i should be good to go now, but anyone who experienced aerosinusitis atleast once, knows that its not something anyone would like to go through again. Damn anxiety, hopefully ill be fine. Fingers crossed. :)

    1. Hi There,

      Did the deviated septum operation do the trick. I had an episode of Aerosinusitus last year and it freaked me out. I saw an ENT specialist who said I have a deviated septum and is sending me for a CT Scan. A bit concerned about the Operation though - was it ok?

  12. One more...happened to me. Pain was so bad that it felt like my head was gonna explode.