What causes earache? 20 possible conditions
Earaches usually occur in children, but they can occur in adults as well. An earache may affect one or both ears, but the majority of the time it is in one ear. Read more
Earaches usually occur in children, but they can occur in adults as well. An earache may affect one or both ears, but the majority of the time it is in one ear. It may be constant or come and go, and the pain may be dull, sharp, or burning.
If you have an ear infection, fever and temporary hearing loss may occur. Young children who have ear infections tend to be fussy and irritable. They may also tug or rub their ears. Read on for other symptoms, causes, treatments, and more.
Earaches can develop from ear infections or injury. Earache symptoms in adults include:
- ear pain
- impaired hearing
- fluid drainage from ear
Children can typically show additional symptoms, such as:
- ear pain
- muffled hearing or difficulty responding to sounds
- sense of fullness in the ear
- difficulty sleeping
- tugging or pulling at the ear
- crying or acting irritable more than usual
- loss of appetite
- loss of balance
What are the common causes of earaches?
Injury, infection, irritation in the ear, or referred pain may cause earaches. Referred pain is pain felt somewhere other than the infection or injured site. For example, pain that originates in the jaw or teeth may be felt in the ear. Causes of earaches can include:
Ear infections are a common cause of earaches or ear pain. Ear infections can occur in the outer, middle, and inner ear.
Outer ear infection can be caused by swimming, wearing hearing aids or headphones that damage the skin inside the ear canal, or putting cotton swabs or fingers in the ear canal. Skin in the ear canal that gets scratched or irritated can lead to infection. Water softens the skin in the ear canal, which can create a breeding ground for bacteria.
Middle ear infection can be caused by infections that stem from a respiratory tract infection. Fluid buildup behind the ear drums caused by these infections can breed bacteria.
Labyrinthitis is an inner ear disorder that is sometimes caused by viral or bacterial infections from respiratory illnesses.
Other common causes of earaches
- change in pressure, such as when flying on a plane
- earwax buildup
- a foreign object in the ear
- strep throat
- sinus infection
- shampoo or water trapped in the ear
- use of cotton swabs in the ear
Less common causes of earaches
- temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
- perforated eardrum
- arthritis affecting the jaw
- infected tooth
- impacted tooth
- eczema in the ear canal
- trigeminal neuralgia (chronic facial nerve pain)
Treating earaches at home
You can take several steps at home to reduce earache pain. Try these options to ease the ear pain:
- Apply a cold washcloth to the ear.
- Avoid getting the ear wet.
- Sit upright to help relieve ear pressure.
- Use over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops.
- Take OTC pain relievers.
- Chew gum to help relieve pressure.
- Feed an infant to help them relieve their pressure.
When to see a doctor
If you or your child has a persistent fever of 104ºF or higher, seek medical attention. For an infant, seek medical help immediately for a fever higher than 101ºF. You should also seek immediate medical attention if you have severe pain that stops suddenly. This could be a sign of the eardrum rupturing.
You should also watch for other symptoms. If these symptoms appear, make an appointment with your doctor:
- severe ear pain
- bad headache
- swelling around the ear
- drooping of the facial muscles
- blood or pus draining from the ear
If an earache gets worse or does not improve in 24 to 48 hours, make an appointment with your doctor.
Medical treatment for earaches
If you have an ear infection, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics or eardrops. In some cases, they’ll prescribe both. Do not stop taking the medication once your symptoms improve. It’s important that you finish your entire prescription to ensure that the infection will clear up completely.
If a buildup of wax is causing your ear pain, you may be given wax-softening eardrops. They may cause the wax to fall out on its own. Your doctor may also flush out the wax using a process called ear lavage, or they may use a suction device to remove the wax.
Your doctor will treat TMJ, sinus infections, and other causes of earaches directly to improve your ear pain.
Some earaches may be preventable. Try these preventive measures:
- Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Keep foreign objects out of the ear.
- Dry the ears after swimming or bathing.
- Avoid allergy triggers, such as dust and pollen.
- Earache. (2014). http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/earache/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Ear infection. (n.d.). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/head-neck/diseases-conditions/ear-infections
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015). Trigeminal neuralgia. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/trigeminal-neuralgia/DS00446
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016). Ear infection (middle ear): Symptoms and causes. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ear-infections/symptoms-causes/dxc-20199484
- Pediatric ear infections. (n.d.). http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/pediatric-ear-infections
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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