Are My Eardrums OK?

The four of us flew to California to visit my parents for the week. Unfortunately, Lindsay has a head cold which she contracted because Arlo likes to give her sloppy kisses followed by brazen hacks that launch glistening clouds of phlegm into the back of her throat. The boy feels just fine, and is totally himself, but has that lingering toddler hack. If he gets to laughing really hard, or breathing heavily, he breaks into a chunky spell that makes one wonder whether a thousand-year old Rabbi just climbed two flights of stairs or perhaps a Thanksgiving witch is percolating gravy in an adjacent apartment.  It’s jarring until you see that every child his age has a similar hack this time of year.

Airplanes are the solitary confinement of parenthood. Enduring a flight with young children while suffering from a head cold should earn you a Purple Heart. Our 5 year-old, Silas, likes long flights because he can watch 18 episodes of Power Rangers Samurai while eating a bottomless pouch of Delta Sky Cookies. Arlo, however, appears to prefer jumping on the seat and barking for things. It’s not constant; he’ll spend 30 minutes concentrated on drawing, or playing a Dora game on the iPad, but between those respites, he demands full-on physical and emotional attention from Lindsay. I can try to distract him with a little paternal magic I call “walking up and down the aisles”, but eventually he wants his mom, and his mom is busy blowing her nose or massaging her temples.

After 6 hours in the hole we finally started our descent into San Francisco. My wife has never had problems with pressure in her ears, but since her head was already filled with a dense resinous snot, once the air forced its way in, there was no way for it to get out. Her sinuses had Ziplocked in more pressure than they could handle. As someone who’s always suffered from altitude-related ear issues, I know that nothing too serious can result from even the most extreme cases of “flight head”. I’ve spent entire days of vacations feeling like my eardrums were encased in foam. But the pressure always subsides and I’m pleasantly reminded of what treble sounds like.

Lindsay’s had no such prior experience. So when she filled up, she panicked. We were still about 10 minutes from landing when she started asking me questions like, “Are my ear drums going to explode?” I assured her that there was no such possibility. “No, I’m serious, I really think my ear drums are going to, like, detach or something. The whole right side of my face is tingling too.” She gripped my arm, began chanting “ow ow ow” and looked at me with stern “help me” eyes, so I guided her through various relief methods. I had her drinking water, chewing gum, attempting SCUBA blows, and moving her jaw in circles like a dizzy Muppet,  but nothing was working. I tried to reassure her that, despite the extreme unpleasantness, no one’s head had ever exploded on an airplane. Unfortunately, I’ve been full of crap and made up bogus facts and percentages so many times in the past that she no longer trusts my “expertise” on such things.

I won back a little clout when we landed and her head didn’t look like an empty two-liter of Pepsi. The trip was not over though; we still had to get the BART to my folks house near Oakland. Lindsay spent most of the ride trying to de-pressurize her ear by violently thrusting her head to the side like a post race swimmer. If you do that, and you’re not at a pool or wearing a swimsuit, you look completely insane. I told her that the air in her ear wasn’t like water: “But I can hear stuff banging, clicking and crunching around in there”, she argued. I assured her it was just the fluid in her ear that was already there because of her cold. Unfortunately, she was convinced that the “jangling noise”was actually her detached eardrum bouncing around in her ear canal.  You know, like maybe it was just going to fall out of her ear and we could use it as a jewel for a necklace, or perhaps as a secret ingredient in a festive Jambalaya.

When we finally reached my mom and dad’s apartment, Lindsay discovered that if she tilted her head sort of sideways and down, she could actually hear through her left ear. “Hey, if I just hold my head like this, I can sort of hear!” was how she stated it. So, that’s what she decided to do: walk around and carry-on conversations with her upper body positioned as if she were looking under the sofa for a lost earring. I would encourage her to load up on decongestants for the flight home, but I know it’s pointless since she doesn’t really believe in cold medicine. So, unless I can convince her that hitch hiking with the kids is “totes safe”, we’ll probably just stay until she’s all better.

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Ryan Windley says:

Just found your blog and it’s hilarious as I find myself in the same spots with my 1.5 yr old sometimes.

Let me tell you though, apparently, it is possible for your eardrums to rupture when you fly with an ear/sinus infection. I had to fly while in the bout of fighting off one and knowing the pain that would ensue, went to my doctor for advice on making it through. He ended up giving me hydrocodone for the pain I was about to experience and when I asked, “what’s the worst that could happen?” he calmly said that an eardrum could rupture but that that actually might be a best case scenario as afterwards it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Who knew eardrums will grow back!