Ear pain (earache) may feel like a dull, sharp, or burning sensation. The pain may come on gradually or suddenly. It can be constant or come and go, depending on the cause. One or both ears may be affected. Although ear pain is more common in children, it can also occur in adults.
Read on to learn more about ear pain causes, home remedies, and treatments.
Causes of ear pain
Ear pain is a common symptom that can have a number of causes, including infection and trauma. Sometimes ear pain is caused by transitional pain, which is pain that originates elsewhere in the body (eg, throat, teeth) and is felt in the ear.
Although rare, ear pain can also be caused by cancer. Persistent ear pain as assessed by a healthcare professional.
One of the most common causes of ear pain is an ear infection. Ear infections can occur in the inner, middle, and outer ears.
Inner ear infection
Labyrinthitis is an ear disorder caused by inflammation and/or irritation in the parts of the inside of the ear that are responsible for balance and hearing. It can cause symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, and temporary hearing loss. Inner ear infections usually do not cause ear pain.
Inner ear infections are usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, but in some cases can be a symptom of an autoimmune disease.
Middle ear infection (otitis media)
A middle ear infection (otitis media) occurs when fluid and inflamed tissue builds up in the middle ear (the area between the eardrum and the oval window of the inner ear).
Otitis media is more common after a cold or a stuffy nose. Children are more susceptible to middle ear infections, but adults can get it too.
Symptoms include moderate to severe pain in the ear and fever. If left untreated, the eardrum can rupture due to the pressure buildup of fluid.
Otitis Externa (outer ear infection)
Infection of the outer ear (otitis externa) occurs in the outer ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to where it contacts the outer end of the ear.
This type of ear infection is often referred to as “swimmer’s ear.” When water gets in and collects in the ear, it creates a moist environment in which bacteria or fungi can grow and develop, causing an infection.
Otitis externa can also occur when foreign objects placed in the ear (such as headphones, hearing aids, and cotton swabs) injure the skin inside the ear canal, which can lead to infection.
Middle ear infection with effusion
Otitis media with effusion (OME) is a buildup of fluid deep inside the middle ear. The pressure of this fluid can cause pain and temporary hearing loss.
OME, sometimes called “glue ear,” may go away on its own. Sometimes, a small procedure to place small tubes (or grommets) in the ear can help draw fluid out to relieve pain.
Earwax protects your ear canal from bacteria, damage, and water. Sometimes earwax can build up or get pushed back into the ear canal, leading to a blockage.
Earwax buildup can sometimes cause ear pain. When you have an earwax blockage, you may feel a full ear or a stuffy nose. You may also hear tinnitus or temporary hearing loss due to the blockage.
Eustachian tube obstruction
The eustachian tube is a narrow tube that connects the back of the nose to the middle ear. It protects the middle ear from bacteria and viruses, keeps the air pressure equal in the middle ear space, and helps drain secretions from the middle ear.
If the shower hose is blocked, bacteria or fluid can get trapped inside the ear and cause an infection. Symptoms of a blocked shower include ear pain, a ringing or buzzing feeling in the ears, dizziness, and hearing loss.
External causes of ear pain
Sometimes ear pain is not caused by a problem with the ear. Instead, pain is felt in the ear even though the problem is somewhere else (this is called transitional pain).
Common causes of ear pain include:
- Dental problem: A tooth abscess (a collection of pus in a tooth or gums caused by a bacterial infection) or a tooth infection causes a sharp pain in the affected area of the mouth and may also be felt in the ear.
- Sore throat: A sore throat can make it difficult to swallow and uncomfortable in your ears. Sometimes an earache is a sign of a throat infection, such as tonsillitis.
- Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ): You may sometimes feel pain in the joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull in your ear.
There are things you can do at home to relieve ear pain, such as:
- Chew gum or yawn to help your ears “pop”.
- Hold a cold or warm compress to the outer ear for 15 minutes at a time (alternating between cold/warm during the day).
- Do neck rotation and jaw movement exercises.
- Sit in an upright position.
- Take a hot bath or shower to ease congestion.
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments can help relieve ear pain and inflammation. Some options include:
- Ear drops: These products often contain glycerin and isopropyl alcohol, which help dry up excess fluid in the ear.
- Decongestants: These medications (eg, Sudafed, Afrin nasal spray) reduce swelling in the mucous membranes, help open the passage to the ear, and relieve symptoms.
- Analgesic: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help relieve mild discomfort and inflammation.
It’s not always possible to self-care and take OTC medications to treat ear pain. If the pain doesn’t go away or gets worse, it’s important to see your doctor — especially if you also have a fever, notice pus or fluid draining from your ears, or have hearing loss.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to help treat your ear pain, including:
- Antibiotics: If you have a bacterial ear infection, your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic (such as amoxicillin or penicillin).
- Ear drops: Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotic ear drops that are placed directly into the ear to clear up the infection.
If earwax buildup is the culprit, your doctor may prescribe ear drops that soften the earwax, which helps break up the wax and let the wax fall off on its own.
If you have ongoing ear pain or an ear condition that requires specialist treatment, your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist (ENT). This doctor can run additional tests and recommend a procedure to relieve your ear pain.
For example, if your ear pain is caused by an earwax blockage, an otolaryngologist may perform a procedure to remove waxy buildup in the ear to provide some relief.
Ear washing (ear washing) is a medical procedure that removes impacted earwax, debris, dead skin cells, and infected tissue from the ear canal.
The doctor uses a tool called an otoscope to get a clear picture of the middle ear to see if irrigation is needed. If present, a syringe-like device is used to insert water or a saline mixture into the ear to wash away excess earwax.
Microsuctioning is a procedure in which a doctor uses a micro-aspirator to gently dislodge and remove impacted earwax. The quick and effective method is often used when ear washing or watering is ineffective.
After the doctor examines the ear with an otoscope or binocular microscope, he or she will carefully remove the earwax with suction. This process only takes a few minutes and there will be very little discomfort (if any) during the procedure.
A very good word
Mild cases of ear pain usually go away on their own or with home remedies after a few days. If your ear pain gets worse or doesn’t get better after a few days, it’s important to see your doctor. Your ear pain could be caused by an infection or a condition that requires treatment, such as antibiotics or a medical procedure.
frequently asked Questions
How can I relieve ear pain at night?
If earaches keep you up at night, try swallowing and yawning to help open the ear canal. You can also sleep in an elevated position to reduce pressure on your eardrums if you feel the pain most when you are lying down.
How can you prevent ear pain while flying?
There are a few ways you can prevent earaches while flying.
- During takeoff and landing, try yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum.
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated before flying.
- Before takeoff and during flight, use saline nasal spray.
- Try not to fall asleep while ascending or descending.
- At least an hour before takeoff, try using a decongestant like Afrin or Sudafed
- Use earplugs to equalize air pressure.
Can you use Vicks VapoRub for an earache?
No, there is no clinical evidence that Vicks VapoRub can ease ear pain. Inserting anything in the ear other than the eardrum can introduce debris into the ear and cause injury.
Are there any essential oils that treat ear infections?
Certain essential oils have antibacterial, antiviral, and pain-relieving properties that can treat ear infections. For example, tea tree oil, garlic oil, and possibly basil oil can help reduce swelling, pain, and discharge from the ear. However, these oils are not safe for everyone to use. You should consult your healthcare provider before using any natural treatment, including essential oils.
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