What causes earache? 15 possible conditions
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Earaches occur most often in children. However, they can occur in adults as well. An earache may affect one or both ears. 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.
Earaches may be caused by injury, infection, or irritation in the ear. Earaches may also be caused by referred pain. Referred pain is pain that is felt somewhere other than the site of the infection or injury. Pain originating in the jaw or teeth may be felt in the ear.
Common causes of earaches include:
- ear infection
- changes in pressure
- ear wax buildup
- a foreign object in ear
- sore throat
- sinus infection
- shampoo or water in the ear
- use of cotton swabs in the ear
Less common causes of earaches include:
- temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
- perforated eardrum
- arthritis affecting the jaw
- tooth infection
- impacted tooth
- eczema in the ear canal
- trigeminal neuralgia (chronic facial nerve pain)
If you or your child has a persistent fever of 104 degrees F or higher, seek medical attention. For an infant, seek help immediately for a fever higher than 101 degrees F. You should also seek immediate medical attention if severe pain stops suddenly. This can be a sign of the eardrum rupturing.
There are other symptoms you should also watch for. 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 ear
If an earache gets worse or does not improve in 24 to 48 hours, make an appointment with your doctor.
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 (not if the eardrum has ruptured)
- taking over-the-counter pain relievers
- chewing gum to help relieve pressure
- feeding an infant to help relieve pressure
If you have an ear infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotic tablets or eardrops. 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 wax buildup 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 it out of your ear.
TMJ, sinus infections, and other causes of earaches will be treated 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
- Earache. (2012, January 26). National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 13, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003046.htm
- Earache. (2011, April 14).NHS Choices. Retrieved July 13, 2012, from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/earache/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Trigeminal Neuralgia. (2010, April 15). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 16, 2012, 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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