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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. 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 at or rub their ears.

What Are the Common Causes of Earaches?

Injury, infection, irritation in the ear, or referred pain may cause earaches. Referred pain is pain that is felt somewhere other than the site of the infection or injury. Pain that originates in the jaw or teeth may be felt in the ear.

Common causes of earaches include:

  • ear infection
  • 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 earear
  • use of cotton swabs in the ear

Less common causes of earaches include:

  • 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

There are several steps you can take at home to reduce earache pain. They include:

  • applying a cold washcloth to the ear
  • avoiding getting the ear wet
  • sitting upright to help relieve ear pressure
  • using over-the-counter ear drops
  • taking over-the-counter pain relievers
  • chewing gum to help relieve pressure
  • feeding an infant to help relieve 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 can 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
  • dizziness
  • 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, he or she will prescribe both. It is important that you finish your prescription. This ensures that the infection will clear up completely. Do not just stop taking medication once your symptoms improve.

If the buildup of wax is causing your ear pain, you may be given wax-softening eardrops. This 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 he or she may use a vacuum-suction device to remove the wax.

Your doctor will treat TMJ, sinus infections, and other causes of earaches directly. This should improve your ear pain.

Preventing Earaches

Some earaches may be preventable. Preventive measures include:

  • avoiding smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • keeping foreign objects out of the ear
  • drying the ears after swimming or bathing
  • avoiding allergy triggers, such as dust and pollen

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Earwax Blockage

Earwax blockage can occur as a result of too much

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Otitis Externa

An outer ear infection is an infection in the tube that connects the opening of the ear to the eardrum.

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Foreign Body in Ear

A foreign body is something that is in the body that does not belong there. Most foreign bodies are harmless but if they are swallowed, they may cause choking or bowel obstruction.

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Middle Ear Infection

A middle ear infection (otitis media), occurs when a virus or bacteria causes the area behind the eardrum to become inflamed. It is most common in children.

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Sinus Infections (Sinusitis)

A sinus infection causes the sinuses and nasal passages to become inflamed. Facial swelling is a common sign of this type of infection.

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Sore Throat

A sore throat refers to pain, itchiness, or irritation of the throat. It may cause difficulty and pain when swallowing. Throat pain is the primary symptom of a sore throat. Other symptoms include dry throat, swolle...

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Tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils (the lymph tissue in your throat) become infected. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, and swollen tonsils. Fortunately, it's normally easily diagnosed and treated.

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If an infection develops in your middle ear and blocks your Eustachian tube, it may subsequently lead to a serious infection in the mastoid bone.

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TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint) Disorders

Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders are problems with the joints and muscles that connect the lower jaw to the skull on both sides of the head right below the ears that cause tenderness in the joint, facia...

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Ear Barotrauma

Ear barotrauma, also known as airplane ear, is a condition that causes ear discomfort when you experience pressure changes, such as altitude change.

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Chronic Ear Infection

A chronic ear infection can be either an ear infection that doesn't heal or a recurring ear infection. Your doctor will need to help you treat it.

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Malignant Otitis Externa

Otitis externa is a common ear infection that is also known as "swimmer's ear." It develops in the inner ear. In some cases, otitis externa can spread to the outer ear and surrounding tissue, including the bones of th...

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Eardrum Rupture

An eardrum rupture is a small hole or tear in your eardrum, or tympanic membrane. The tympanic membrane is a thin tissue that divides your middle ear and outer ear canal. This membrane vibrates when sound waves ente...

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Teeth Grinding

Bruxism is the technical name for teeth grinding or jaw clenching. Learn why people grind their teeth (stress, misaligned teeth, posture) and explore information about the symptoms and treatments for bruxism now.

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Menieres Disease

Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear. It's not known what causes it, but there are a variety of treatments available to help with the symptoms.

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Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a chronic, painful condition involving the nerve responsible for carrying the sensation of pain and other sensations from the face to the brain. The condition causes intense pain in part o...

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Bell’s Palsy

Bell's palsy is a condition that affects movement of the muscles in the face as a result of damage to the seventh cranial nerve controlling them. Significant damage of this nerve can result in paralysis of the face.

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Subacute Thyroiditis

Thyroiditis refers to an inflamed thyroid. Your thyroid is a gland in the front of your neck that controls your metabolism by releasing a variety of hormones. Most types of thyroiditis do not cause pain in the thyroi...

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Chlorine Poisoning

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Chlorine poisoning can occur when you swallow or inhale chlorine. It reacts with water inside and outside of the body to form dangerous compounds. It can cause digestive, respiratory, skin, and circulatory problems.

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Acoustic Neuroma

Acoustic neuromas are noncancerous tumors that grow on the nerve that connects the brain and ear. They can cause dizziness, vertigo, headache, vision problems, and pain.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.