Airplane headache: sudden severe headache on the plane

People with a fear of flying do not dare to travel by plane for various reasons: some are afraid of crashing, others are afraid of heights, others have claustrophobia when they are in a small space with so many people. However, there is another reason why some people avoid taking a plane: they get a sudden and very severe headache, especially when landing, so bad that it can lead to a fear of flying, despite the fact that such an ‘Airplane headache is short-lived.

  • What is airplane headache?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What are the causes?
  • What can you do about it?
  • Decision


What is airplane headache?

Maybe you recognize it: you go on holiday by plane and everything goes according to plan. The flight is not delayed, the cabin crew is friendly, you sit quite comfortably, and yet there is that annoying spoilsport: just while landing you suddenly get a terrible headache, it is as if your heart is pounding hard in your head. It scares you because you’ve never felt anything like this before. You’re worried However, you don’t have to worry, no matter how unpleasant it is, you are dealing with airplane headache .Airplane headache is a specific headache that only occurs when flying. This condition was officially recognized in 2013 and included in the International classification of headache disorders . According to Scandinavian research (2017), 8.3% of airline passengers experience this type of headache.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are of course typical headache symptoms, but there are some characteristics that clearly indicate airplane headaches:

  • Airplane headaches come on very quickly, usually during landing but it also happens during take-off.
  • Fortunately, airplane headaches are short-lived. After about thirty minutes the headache disappears as suddenly as it came on.
  • The pain occurs on one side of the forehead, above the eye.
  • The pain is very severe and ranges from a sharp pain, as if being stabbed in the head with an ice pick, to the feeling of punching with the fists or of the heart pounding in the head.
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, this pain is usually rated between 8 and 10.
  • Usually there are no other symptoms such as nausea and hypersensitivity to noise and light. Sometimes watery, red eyes.
  • Airplane headaches can occur sporadically or can be chronic.
  • It also happens to people who rarely or never had headaches before.


What are the causes?

The diagnosis of airplane headache is purely clinical because medical images do not reveal any pathologies that could explain the symptoms. In 2018, it is not yet clear what exactly causes airplane headaches. But in the medical literature, the most accepted cause is linked to an imbalance between cabin air pressure and sinus pressure during takeoff and landing.Some people have reduced permeability of the nasal passages, which makes it difficult to compensate for air pressure differences. This imbalance between external and internal air pressure can adversely affect the mucous membranes of the paranasal sinuses or paranasal sinuses. During takeoff, the air pressure in the cabin is lower than that of the sinuses. This causes the mucous membranes to expand. When landing, the air pressure in the cabin is higher than that of the sinuses, which compresses the mucous membranes. In both cases, this phenomenon can cause headaches, approximately the same pain as with acute or chronic sinusitis. Once the plane is at altitude, there are no longer air pressure fluctuations that can cause headaches.Persons suffering from altitude headaches , in the mountains of 2500 m, are at greater risk of developing airplane headaches.

What can you do about it?

Unfortunately, there are no real cures for airplane headaches. There are a number of aids that can ease the pain in some people:

  • Take a painkiller or anti-inflammatory before the flight to reduce the pain. In some cases, this can prevent an attack.
  • Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after the flight.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Using a nasal spray can keep the airways clear.
  • Chewing gum also helps keep the airways open.



Airplane headaches during take-off and landing are not very well known because most people do not go to the doctor about it. After all, the headache is short-lived and therefore many find a doctor’s visit unnecessary. Yet there are a lot of people who have to deal with this phenomenon and who therefore develop a fear of flying. After all, the pain is very severe. For some, fear even goes so far that they never dare to take a plane again.