The common cold occurs when a virus infects your nose and throat. It can cause various symptoms, including a runny nose, cough, and congestion. You might also have mild body aches or a headache.
Sometimes a cold can also cause pain in or around the ear. This usually feels like dull ache.
The earache may happen during or after a cold. In either case, it’s possible to relieve the pain and feel better.
Read on to learn why ear pain occurs during a cold, which remedies to try, and when to see a doctor.
When you have a cold, an earache might be caused by one of the following reasons.
The eustachian tube connects your middle ear to your upper throat and back of your nose. Normally, it stops excessive air pressure and fluid from accumulating in your ear.
However, if you have a cold, mucus and fluid from your nose can build up in your eustachian tube. This may block the tube, causing ear pain and discomfort. Your ear may also feel “plugged” or full.
Typically, the ear congestion will get better as your cold goes away. But sometimes, it can lead to secondary infections.
Middle ear infection
A middle ear infection, called infectious otitis media, is a common complication of the cold. It occurs when viruses in your nose and throat enter your ear through the eustachian tube.
The viruses cause fluid buildup in the middle ear. Bacteria can grow in this fluid, causing a middle ear infection.
This can lead to ear pain, along with:
- difficulty hearing
- green or yellow nasal discharge
An unresolved cold can lead to a sinus infection, also called infectious sinusitis. It causes inflammation in your sinuses, which include the areas in your nose and forehead.
If you have sinusitis, you may experience ear pressure. This can make your ear hurt.
Other possible symptoms include:
- yellow or green postnasal drainage
- difficulty breathing through your nose
- facial pain or pressure
- bad breath
- poor sense of smell
Most causes of cold-induced ear pain get better on their own. But you can use home remedies to manage the pain.
Hot or cold compress
To ease pain or swelling, place a heat or ice pack on your affected ear.
Always wrap the pack in a clean towel. This will protect your skin from the heat or ice.
If only one ear is affected, sleep on the side with the unaffected ear. For example, if your right ear is painful, sleep on your left side. This will decrease pressure on your right ear.
You can also try sleeping with your head on two or more pillows, which is thought to reduce pressure. This can strain your neck, though, so use caution.
If your earache is due to a sinus infection, try a nasal rinse. This will help to drain and clear your sinuses.
Drink lots of fluids, regardless of what’s causing your earache. Staying hydrated will loosen mucus and speed up recovery.
Take it easy. Resting will support your body’s ability to fight off a cold or secondary infection.
Along with home remedies, a doctor may suggest these treatments for ear pain.
Over-the-counter pain relievers
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help reduce your pain and fever.
For an earache, it’s recommended that you take ibuprofen or acetaminophen. For treating an earache in children younger than 6 months, check with your doctor about medication type and dosage.
Always follow the package’s directions. Ask a doctor about the appropriate dose.
OTC decongestants may help decrease swelling in the nose and ears. Decongestants can improve how you feel, but they won’t treat the cause of an ear or sinus infection.
Decongestants are available in several forms, including:
- nose drops
- nasal sprays
- oral capsules or liquid
Again, follow the package’s instructions. This is especially important if you’re giving decongestants to a child.
You can also use OTC ear drops, which are designed to relieve pain in the ear. Read the directions carefully.
If your eardrum has burst, ear drops may cause problems. Talk to a doctor first.
Normally, antibiotics aren’t necessary to treat ear infections or sinusitis. But if you have chronic or severe symptoms, and there’s concern that it’s a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe them.
When you have a cold, taking common cold medications can help manage your symptoms. However, they might not necessarily make your earache go away.
Additionally, taking cold medicines with OTC pain relievers can do more harm than good. That’s because they often share some of the same ingredients.
For example, Nyquil contains acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol. If you take both Nyquil and Tylenol, you could consume too much acetaminophen. This is unsafe for your liver.
Similarly, prescription drugs can interact with OTC medicines. If you’re taking any kind of prescription medication, talk to a doctor before taking OTC cold medicines or pain relievers.
It’s also important to be mindful of:
- Cold medications for young children. If your child is younger than 4 years old, don’t give them these medications unless their doctor says so.
- Aspirin. Avoid giving aspirin to children and teenagers. Aspirin is considered unsafe for this age group due to the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.
- Oils. Some people claim garlic, tea tree, or olive oil can help to clear an ear infection. But there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support these remedies, so use caution.
- Cotton swabs. Avoid putting cotton swabs or other objects inside your ear.
Cold-induced ear pain often resolves on its own.
But if you notice any of the following symptoms, see your doctor:
- symptoms that persist for a few days
- worsening symptoms
- severe ear pain
- hearing loss
- change in hearing
- earache in both ears
These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition.
Your doctor will use several methods to determine what’s causing your earache. These may include:
- Medical history. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and history of ear pain.
- Physical examination. They will also look inside your ear with a tool called an otoscope. They’ll check for swelling, redness, and pus here, and they’ll also look inside your nose and throat.
If you have chronic ear pain, your doctor may have you see an ear, nose, and throat doctor.
It’s typical to have ear pain during or after a cold. Most cases aren’t serious and usually go away on their own. Rest, OTC pain relievers, and home remedies like ice packs can help you feel better.
Avoid taking common cold medications and pain relievers at the same time, as they can interact and cause problems.
If your ear pain is very severe, or if it lasts for a long time, see a doctor.