A sore throat is pain in the back of the throat. It can be caused by a number of things, but a cold is the most common cause. Like a sore throat, ear pain also has a few underlying causes.
Most of the time, a sore throat isn’t anything to worry about and will improve within a few days. When an earache accompanies a sore throat, it could be a sign of tonsillitis, mononucleosis, or another condition that may require treatment.
Let’s take a look at the causes of a sore throat and ear pain and which ones warrant a visit to the doctor.
A sore throat and ear pain may sound self-explanatory, but the type of pain and severity can vary, depending on the cause.
Symptoms of a sore throat can include:
- mild to severe pain in the back of your throat
- dry or scratchy feeling in your throat
- pain when swallowing or talking
- redness in the back of your throat
- swollen tonsils
- swollen glands in your neck or jaw
- white patches on your tonsils
Ear pain symptoms can include:
- dull, sharp, or burning pain in one or both ears
- muffled hearing
- feeling of fullness in the ear
- fluid drainage from ear
- popping sound or sensation in the ear
A sore throat and ear pain can also be accompanied by headache, fever, and general feeling of being unwell, depending on the cause.
The following are causes of sore throat and ear pain together.
Allergens, such as pollen and dust, can trigger an allergic reaction that causes inflammation of the mucus membranes that line the nasal cavities and ears. This causes postnasal drip, which is excess mucus draining into the throat. Postnasal drip is a common cause of throat irritation and pain.
Inflammation can also cause a blockage in the ears that prevents mucus from draining properly, leading to pressure and ear pain.
You may also have other symptoms of allergies, including:
Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils, which are two glands located on each side of your throat. Tonsillitis is more common in children, but can happen at any age. It can be caused by bacteria or viruses, such as the common cold.
Red, swollen tonsils and a sore throat are the most common symptoms. Others include:
- pain when swallowing
- ear pain when swallowing
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- white or yellow patches on the tonsils
Mononucleosis, or mono, is an infectious disease usually caused by a virus, such as the Epstein-Barr virus. Mono can cause severe symptoms that can last for several weeks.
It can affect anyone, but people in their teens and early 20s are more likely to experience classic symptoms of the illness, which include:
- sore throat
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, and groin
- muscle aches and weakness
- ear fullness
Strep throat is a contagious infection caused by a group of bacteria. Strep throat can cause a very painful sore throat that comes on very quickly. Sometimes, the bacteria from a throat infection can travel into the eustachian tubes and middle ear, causing an ear infection.
Other symptoms of strep throat include:
- white patches or pus on the tonsils
- tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
- swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
Acid reflux is a common condition that occurs when stomach acid or other contents of your stomach back up into your esophagus. If you experience frequent acid reflux, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a more severe form of acid reflux.
Symptoms tend to be worse when lying down, bending over, or after a heavy meal. Heartburn is the most common symptom. Others symptoms include:
- sour taste in the mouth
- regurgitation of food, liquid, or bile
- sore throat and hoarseness
- the feeling of a lump in your throat
Chronic sinusitis is a condition in which the sinus cavities become inflamed for at least 12 weeks even with treatment. The inflammation interferes with mucus drainage, causing a buildup that leads to pain and swelling in the face. Other symptoms include:
- thick, discolored mucus
- nasal congestion
- sore throat
- ear pain
- aching in your upper teeth and jaw
- bad breath
Inhaling smoke, chemicals, and other substances can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and cause inflammation of the mucous membranes, which can affect the ears. It can also cause lung irritation.
Common irritants include:
- wood dust
- oven cleaner
- industrial cleaning products
- paint thinner
Temporomandibular joint disorders
Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) are a group of conditions affecting the temporomandibular joints located on each side of your jaw. TMD causes pain and dysfunction in these joints, which control jaw movement. The condition is more common in people who clench and grind their teeth, but the exact cause isn’t known.
Common symptoms of TMD include:
- jaw pain that may radiate to the neck
- pain in one or both joints
- chronic headaches
- facial pain
- clicking, popping, or cracking sounds from the jaw
People with TMD have also reported sore throat and ears, a plugging sensation, and ringing in the ear.
Tooth infection or abscess
A dental abscess is a pocket of pus at the tip of your tooth’s root caused by a bacterial infection. An abscessed tooth can cause severe pain that radiates to your ear and jaw on the same side. The lymph nodes in your neck and throat may also be swollen and tender.
Other symptoms include:
- sensitivity to heat and cold
- pain when chewing and swallowing
- swelling in your cheek or face
Ear and throat pain on one side may be caused by:
- tooth infection or abscess
Sore throat and ear pain that lasts for weeks may be caused by:
- acid reflux or GERD
- chronic sinusitis
A doctor will ask you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. During the exam they’ll check your ears and throat for signs of infection and examine your throat for swollen lymph nodes.
If strep throat is suspected, a swab of the back of your throat will be taken to check for bacteria. This is called a rapid strep test. It’s performed right away and results take just a few minutes.
Other tests that may be used to diagnose the cause of sore throat and ears include:
Getting plenty of rest and fluids is a good place to start if you have a cold or other infection, such as a throat, sinus, or ear infection.
You can also try:
- a humidifier to help keep your throat and nasal passages moist
- over-the-counter (OTC) pain and fever medication
- OTC throat lozenges or sore throat spray
- OTC antihistamines
- a salt water gargle
- popsicles or ice chips for throat pain and inflammation
- a few drops of warmed olive oil in the ears
- antacids or OTC GERD treatments
Most throat and ear infections clear up within a week without treatment. Antibiotics are rarely prescribed unless you’ve had repeated strep infections or have a compromised immune system. Antibiotics are also used to treat tooth infections.
Medical treatment for sore throat and ears depends on the cause. Treatments include:
See a doctor if you have persistent throat and ear pain that doesn’t improve with self-care or if you have:
- a compromised immune system
- a high fever
- severe throat or ear pain
- blood or pus draining from your ear
- a stiff neck
- frequent heartburn or acid reflux
See a dentist if you have tooth pain or an abscess.
Some symptoms may indicate a serious illness or complication. Go to the nearest emergency room if your sore throat and ears is accompanied by:
Home remedies can help relieve a sore throat and ears, but medical treatment may be needed depending on the cause of your symptoms. If self-care measures don’t help or your symptoms are severe, speak to a doctor.