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
- 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.
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
- Ear infection. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/head-neck/diseases-conditions/ear-infections
- Earache. (2014, December 16). Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/earache/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015, July 21). Trigeminal neuralgia. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/trigeminal-neuralgia/DS00446
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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