Pain in the ear

How to Get Rid of an Earache Fast

It doesn’t matter how old you are – earaches hurt. And since most earaches are not the result of a bacterial infection, antibiotics won’t help get you better.

But you don’t have to take a wait-and-see approach.

There are several earache treatment methods that can help to reduce your symptoms, including the pain and swelling you’re experiencing.

Best Method for Soothing an Earache Quickly

Typically, an earache or ear infection is associated with the common cold or flu. These viral upper respiratory infections can lead to fluid buildup in the ear.

To alleviate any pain, doctors often recommend using a warm compress, which can help to loosen congestion and ease any discomfort.

Creating a warm compress is simple. Just soak a washcloth in warm water, wring out excess water, fold it, and place it on the affected ear for 10 to 15 minutes. But be careful, as an overly hot washcloth could cause a burn.

You can also create a warm compress from a heating pad or warmed gel pack. Wrap a towel around your heating pad, set it to a low setting, and place it on top of the sore ear.

To be safe, you can also use a towel with a warmed gel pack.

Other Home Remedies for Earaches

If a warm compress doesn’t do the trick, there are other home remedies for an ear infection.

Depending on the cause of your earache, certain methods will be more effective at providing relief, as they’re designed to get to the root of why you’re having ear pain.

  • Steam – Does your little one have an earache that’s making them fussy? They might not sit still long enough for a warm compress to have an impact. Steam from a humidifier, shower or bath can have the same effect as a warm compress. It helps to open and relax airways, thus reducing ear pressure and easing pain.
  • Sleeping Upright – Ear discomfort from viral infections is often the result of fluid buildup in the middle ear. Draining this fluid can help to relief pain. Rather than sleeping lying down, try sleeping in an upright position, either propped up with a couple pillows or in an armchair that’s reclined a bit.
  • Gargling with Saltwater – An earache is sometimes associated with a sore throat, and gargling with saltwater can help ease your symptoms. Simply mix a 1 to 5 ratio of salt to warm water, then gargle, spit out, and repeat. If you have a sore throat, warm liquids like honey and lemon tea or a broth soup can provide some relief. Do this up to four times daily.
  • Essential Oils – Many essential oils have antibacterial or antiviral properties which help to kill bacteria or prevent viruses from reproducing. Tea tree oil, oregano oil, basil oil, and garlic oil, in particular, are known to alleviate ear pain. Try mixing a couple drops of essential oil with a couple drops of olive oil and placing them directly inside the ear. You can also soak a cotton ball in essential oil and put it on the opening of the ear to let the essential oil seep in.
  • Onion – For centuries, moms have sworn by the curative power of onions. While there is no scientific evidence behind their effectiveness, onions do contain chemicals, like flavonoid quercetin, that have anti-inflammatory properties which can help with ear swelling. To help heal an earache, place a couple drops of onion juice in the affected ear or half of an onion on top of the affected ear.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide Mixture – Spending time at the pool in the summer can help to cool you off, but too much time in the water can result in swimmer’s ear. To get rid of water trapped in the ear, you can make hydrogen peroxide earache drops from a 1 to 1 ratio of peroxide to water and use a dropper to put the liquid into your ear. Combining equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol can have the same effect. Both combinations help provide earache relief by drying out the ear and getting rid of excess moisture.
  • Chewing Gum – If you’ve just been on a plane or scuba diving, you might experience ear pain from changes in air pressure. Chewing gum can help to “pop” your ears and help to reduce any pain or pressure you’re experiencing.

Earache Remedies for Kids

Since children are especially prone to ear infections, given their smaller eustachian tubes, there are some medications on the market specifically for earaches in kids. Drugstores sell pain-relieving eardrops that can help your child feel better if their earache is due to a cold or flu, swimmer’s ear, or allergies.

In addition, children’s formula acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used as earache remedies to help ease discomfort from inflammation in kids 6 months or older. Be sure to consult your child’s pediatrician before giving an kind of anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) and avoid aspirin for children under 16.

When to Come into GoHealth Urgent Care

Most earaches will go away in a few days. But if it doesn’t get better, or symptoms worsen in 24 to 48 hours, it’s time to visit a GoHealth Urgent Care center.

Other reasons to seek medical advice include:

  • Pus-like fluid or blood oozing from the ear
  • A high fever (for children, a temperature over 100.4°)
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Swelling behind the ear (especially if you’re experiencing facial weakness)
  • An object might be stuck in your ear and needs to be removed
  • Severe ear pain that suddenly stops (which could be a sign of a ruptured eardrum)

Healthcare professionals at our centers regularly see and treat earaches and ear infections. Just use the dropdown below to save your spot online – or you can walk in to the GoHealth Urgent Care nearest you.

Preventing an Earache Before It Starts

Want to protect against ear infections in the first place? Your surest bet is to prevent the spread of germs that can lead to infection.

Make sure your child receives (in addition to all recommended vaccines) the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), since pneumococcal bacteria is the most common cause of an ear infection.

Also, breastfeeding for at least 6 months has shown to boost the baby’s immune system, helping to prevent sickness.

More generally to prevent earaches, you should keep your home smoke-free and practice healthy everyday habits like handwashing.

These methods will not only protect against ear infections but a whole host of illnesses you and your family are much better without!

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Earache.

Earache is a common complaint, especially in children. It is generally caused by an ear infection, but can also be caused by:

  • allergies or irritation
  • changes in air pressure, such as when you take off or land in a plane
  • an object in the ear
  • a burst eardrum (for example, if something has been pushed too far into the ear or from a middle ear infection)
  • an injury
  • a build up of ear wax
  • loud noises
  • referred pain from a throat infection or an infection near the ear like sinusitis or tonsillitis
  • problems with the jaw
  • dental problems, such as teeth grinding or an abscess

If the pain persists or gets worse, or if you feel sick or have a temperature, see your doctor.

Earache treatments

Some earaches go away on their own within 7 days and do not need treatment. Children rarely need antibiotics for an earache. Simple painkillers like paracetamol can help.

But you should see your doctor if:

  • the pain doesn’t go away or is getting worse
  • you are feeling unwell with fevers
  • you have a discharge from your ears
  • it is a child under 2 who has the earache
  • you are worried and unsure what to do

Never try to remove something stuck in the ear yourself. Over the counter ear drops or olive oil drops should not be used if the ear drum has burst, and they will not help an ear infection.

Ways to ease the pain include:

  • holding a warm cloth or heat pack to your ear
  • covering your ears if cold weather or wind makes symptoms worse

If you have a discharge, you can gently clean the outer ear with cotton wool. If there is discharge from both ears, use a new piece of cotton wool for each ear.

What Is Ear Pain?

Most ear pain clears up on its own without any treatment. But if it’s not getting better, or if you have other, more serious symptoms, you may need to see a doctor.

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Most people assume earaches and ear pain happen only to children, but they can also happen to adults. An earache may affect one or both ears, but the majority of the time it’s in one ear. Ear pain may be dull, sharp, or burning, and it may feel constant or come and go.

Pain in the ear can have multiple causes. It can be an early sign of colds, flu, or infection. If you have an ear infection, fever and temporary hearing loss may occur.

Earaches in Babies and Children

Earaches and ear pain in children are a fact of life for parents and are one of the most common reasons they call their pediatrician after hours. Experts estimate that 3 out of 4 babies develop ear infections, when fluid in the middle ear builds up and inflammation develops, but diagnosing the exact cause can be challenging.

Young children and babies who have ear infections tend to be fussy and irritable. They may also cry and tug at or rub their ears. Other signs of earaches in babies include trouble sleeping, waking at night, fever, clumsiness, and difficulty hearing. Very rarely, earaches in children can result in hearing loss.

Temporary Ear Pain

Many people experience ear pain and mild hearing loss or muffling due to sudden changes in air pressure, such as traveling on an airplane or riding on an elevator. While disconcerting, this kind of ear pain is temporary and rarely leads to lasting hearing problems. Try chewing gum or swallowing for quick ear pain relief.

Excessive earwax that builds up in the ear canal can also cause pressure and pain in the ear. But that old saying that you should never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear still holds true: People who try to clean wax from their ears with cotton swabs or other objects can inadvertently damage the eardrum and push the wax farther back into the ear, making it harder to remove. Excessive earwax should be diagnosed and treated by a healthcare professional.

What is a Ruptured Eardrum?

People who experience intense ear pain accompanied by clear or bloody fluid from the ear may have a ruptured eardrum. Ruptured eardrums can be caused by injuries to the head and neck area, changes in air or water pressure — from going scuba diving, for example — inner ear infections, and less commonly by being around loud noises.

A ruptured eardrum is a hole or perforation in the membrane that separates the inner and outer ear. Ruptured eardrums can be very painful and may result in temporary or permanent hearing loss, but they usually heal on their own.

Ear Pain and Other Conditions

Chronic ear pain in adults can also be associated with related conditions, including tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing in the ear that affects about 1 in 5 people.

Some ear pain comes from a “referred source,” meaning the sensation of pain is felt in the ear but originates elsewhere in the body, such as the brain, jaw area, or throat. Though it’s rare, ear pain can also be caused by structural changes in the jaws or teeth. People with damage to or disorders of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects the jaws, can feel pressure or fullness, or experience tinnitus.

How to Prevent Ear Pain

To prevent ear pain, avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, and allergy triggers like dust and pollen, all of which can irritate your sinuses and cause earaches.

People at risk for ear pain should avoid loud music, concerts, and environmental noise, such as banging construction. If you can’t avoid loud noises, it’s worth investing in a good pair of earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.

Keep all foreign objects out of the ear and, if you swim, wear earplugs and a bathing cap. Always take time to carefully dry your ears after swimming, showering, or bathing.

Causes of Ear Pain

A person with ear pain feels discomfort in the outer, middle, or inner ear. Ear pain may be caused by an ear injury, inflammation, or infection. The most common cause of ear pain is an ear infection, such as otitis media or otitis externa. Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear, while otitis externa is an infection of the ear canal.

Common causes of earaches and ear pain include:

  • Ear infection
  • Changes in air 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 ear
  • 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
  • Braces on teeth
  • Eczema in the ear canal
  • Trigeminal neuralgia, or chronic facial nerve pain

Symptoms of Ear Pain

Symptoms associated with ear pain depend on the underlying cause. Symptoms that may occur with otitis externa include ear redness, ear swelling, ear tenderness, and discharge from the ear canal. Additional symptoms that may occur with otitis media include fever, sinus congestion, hearing loss, dizziness, and vertigo — a feeling that the room is spinning.

An earache from an ear infection can be especially troublesome for children and babies.

Symptoms of ear pain include:

  • Babies appearing hot and irritable
  • Children pulling, tugging, or rubbing an ear
  • A high temperature, over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)
  • Poor feeding in babies, or loss of appetite in children
  • Sleep problems and restlessness at night
  • Coughing and runny nose
  • Not hearing as well as normal
  • Balance problems

Treatment for Ear Pain

Treatment for ear pain depends on the underlying cause. It may include over-the-counter, age-appropriate painkillers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for pain and fever. Treatment may also include warm compresses, acetaminophen (Tylenol), other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs), or a short course of narcotic pain medication. Treatment for otitis media may include oral antibiotics, while treatment for otitis externa requires antibiotic eardrops. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for ear infections, although some research suggests antibiotics may not always be an effective treatment.

A pharmacist may be able to recommend over-the-counter eardrops for quick at-home ear pain relief. Olive oil, as well as some eardrops, may also help loosen earwax. Never use eardrops or olive oil if you suspect your eardrum — the membrane that separates the outer and middle parts of the ear — may have burst.

Holding a warm flannel or cloth-covered hot water bottle to the painful ear for around 20 minutes is one DIY form of treatment. But if an ear infection is suspected, avoid getting the inside of the ear wet.

In most cases, ear pain subsides without any treatment at all, but if it doesn’t go away, or is accompanied by other, more serious symptoms, you should see a healthcare provider — either your primary care physician or an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat disorders.

6 Possible Outer Ear Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced outer ear pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)

Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the canal which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.

It is caused by anything that introduces bacteria, fungus, or a virus into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause, as are cotton swabs used for cleaning or earpieces that create irritation.

Most susceptible are children, because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.

Early symptoms include redness, itching, and discomfort inside the ear canal, sometimes with drainage of clear fluid.

Even mild symptoms should be treated because they can quickly get worse. The infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination of the ear canal. Lab tests may be done on a sample of the discharge from the ear.

Treatment includes having a medical provider clean the ear canal of debris and discharge, and a prescription for antibiotic and/or steroid eardrops.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Relapsing polychondritis

Relapsing polychondritis is a disorder in which defects develop in cartilage and other tissues throughout the body, including the ears, nose, eyes, joints, and respiratory tract. It is considered a rare condition.

Symptoms vary widely by case, but you may experie…

Mild frostbite of the ears

Frostbite is tissue damage caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports. It is also more likely in those who are intoxicated or have a mental disorder.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: swollen ear, ear numbness, outer ear pain, ear redness, turning blue or purple from coldness

Symptoms that always occur with mild frostbite of the ears: cold ears

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Outer Ear Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your outer ear pain

Mild frostnip of the ears

Frostnip is damage of the outermost layers of the skin caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: ear numbness, outer ear pain, ear redness, turning blue or purple from coldness, cold ears

Symptoms that always occur with mild frostnip of the ears: cold ears

Urgency: In-person visit

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain

Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a non-contagious chronic skin condition that produces an itchy rash. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin’s ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens. The most susceptible are those with a family hi…

8 Causes of Ear and Jaw Pain

1. TMJ disorders

One source of ear and jaw pain may be related to your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This area includes not only the jaw joint but also the muscles surrounding it.

The TMJ is adjacent to the temporal bone, which includes your inner ear. The TMJ does a lot of work, moving in many directions so you can chew and talk.

Ear and jaw pain may occur from a TMJ disorder. Around 10 to 15 percent of adults may experience a TMJ disorder. These disorders cause inflammation and pain in your TMJ. Facial pain and ear discomfort are the most common complaints of this condition. You may have a chronic TMJ disorder if you experience symptoms for longer than three months.

You may develop a TMJ disorder from wear and tear or because of another medical condition. In some cases, your doctor may suspect a TMJ disorder, but you actually have something else like:

  • fibromyalgia
  • sleep apnea
  • anxiety
  • depression

2. Osteoarthritis

Ear and jaw pain could be caused by osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis in the TMJ. This condition develops from wear and tear over time to the cartilage surrounding the joint. You may feel stiffness in the joint as well as pain.

3. Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis

These forms of arthritis occur because your immune system attacks healthy joints. Both rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis are identified as autoimmune conditions.

You may experience joint pain throughout your body at different times, including in your TMJ, and certain triggers may cause the pain to flare up.

4. Migraine

Pain felt in your jaw and ears near the TMJ area may trigger migraine. Migraine attacks are severe headaches that can re-occur. They can cause sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.

5. Swimmer’s ear

This condition occurs when bacteria forms in the outer ear from water exposure or injury. You may get this condition from swimming or if an outside object tears your ear’s lining. The symptoms will get worse if the condition is untreated and can lead to ear and jaw pain.

6. Sinusitis

You may experience ear and jaw pain from sinusitis. This condition can occur if you have a cold or allergies and your nasal passages become irritated and inflamed. The infection is generally caused by a virus, but you can also get bacterial sinusitis.

7. Dental issues

You may experience cavities, periodontal disease, and dental abscesses if bacteria builds up on your teeth and gums. These conditions can cause damage to your mouth and beyond, especially if left untreated. They can lead to jaw and ear pain.

8. Teeth grinding

If you grind your teeth, you may end up with a TMJ disorder and feel pain in your ears and jaw. This condition can:

  • impact the way your teeth align
  • erode your teeth
  • break down your TMJ
  • strain your muscles

You may grind your teeth at night and not even realize it until pain or another symptom develops.

Structure and functions of the ear

Cross-section of the ear

The ear is roughly divided into three parts.

The outer (external) ear includes:

  • The part you can see, called the pinna.
  • A narrow tube-like structure – the ear canal.
  • The eardrum which is at the end of the canal. This separates the external ear from the middle ear. The eardrum is a tightly stretched membrane, a bit like the skin of a drum.

The middle ear is an air-filled compartment. Inside it are three of the smallest bones in the body, called malleus, incus and stapes. These bones are connected to each other. The last in the group, stapes, also makes contact with the internal (inner) ear. The air space of the middle ear connects to the back of the nose by the Eustachian tube.

The inner ear is made up of two components:

  • The cochlea – a snail-shaped chamber filled with fluid. It is lined with special hair cells. These cells transform sound waves into electrical signals. These signals are then passed by nerves to the brain.
  • The vestibular system, which helps with balance. The vestibular system is made up of a network of tubes, called the semicircular canals, plus the vestibule. The vestibular system detects movement instead of sound.

The ear is important for hearing and for balance.

Our picks for Earache (Ear Pain)

Anatomy of the ear

Your ears do the remarkable job of allowing you to hear a huge range of sounds, from a whisper t…

What are the causes of earache?

There are many causes of earache. Some of the more common ones are explained briefly below. For many of them you will find links to leaflets with more detailed information.

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

Otitis media is an extremely common cause of earache in children. It can occur in adults, but is unusual. It is most common in children of preschool age. It often occurs following a common cold.

Children with otitis media have a painful ear and often a high temperature (fever). Mostly otitis media gets better on its own and is treated with painkillers only. However, if it is not improving after a few days or if your child is very young, your doctor may consider antibiotic medication.

For more details about otitis media, see the separate leaflet called Ear Infection (Otitis Media).

Infection in the ear canal (otitis externa)

Otitis externa is an infection of the outer part of the ear, the ear canal. This type of infection is more common in adults than in children. It is more common in people who swim. It also may occur in people who have skin conditions such as eczema around the ear.

If you have otitis externa your ear may feel sore or itchy. There may be a discharge coming out of your ear. Your ear may feel blocked and you may not be able to hear as well as usual.

The treatment for otitis externa is usually ear drops or an ear spray. You will normally need to see your doctor for a prescription. However, there are ear drops called acetic acid ear drops (EarCalm®) available over the counter which can treat most mild cases of otitis externa. Acetic acid drops make the inside of the ear more acidic. This has antifungal and antibacterial effects but for more severe infections an anti-infective medicine such as antibiotic ear drops may be needed.

If you have had otitis externa before and recognise the symptoms, you may be able to purchase acetic acid ear drops from a pharmacy. However, if this is the first time, you should see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis.

See the separate leaflets called Ear Infection (Otitis Externa) and Fungal Ear Infection for more detailed information.

Wax

Our ears produce a waxy substance to protect our ear canals. Normally this naturally moves out of your ear on its own. However, sometimes a plug of wax can form, blocking your ear canal. This makes you feel deaf on one or both sides and can be uncomfortable. You also sometimes hear popping sounds or a ringing in your ear when you have wax stuck in your ear. Occasionally it can make you feel dizzy.

Never try to remove earwax with a cotton bud. This can push the wax further into your canal and cause a blockage.

Wax can usually be removed with oils or ear drops. Warmed olive oil or sodium bicarbonate ear drops (available from a pharmacy) applied three times a day usually help within a few days. If this does not remove the wax, you may need to see the nurse at your GP surgery. They may need to flush your earwax out with water (called irrigation).

For further information, see the separate leaflet called Earwax.

A common cold

Sometimes a common cold can cause earache without there being an infection in the ear itself. This is due to the excessive mucus you produce when you have a cold. Some of this may collect in the middle ear, putting pressure on the eardrum and causing earache. This will normally improve on its own. Treatments that may help the earache in this case are:

  • Steam inhalation.
  • Decongestants (not suitable for children under 6 years, and for children under 12 years only with advice from your doctor).
  • Simple painkillers.

For further information, see the separate leaflet called Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.

Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE

Foreign bodies

All sorts of objects can get stuck in ears. This is particularly common in children but can also occur in adults. Foreign bodies which can get into ears include beads, seeds, toys, bits of cotton bud and insects. This may cause earache, deafness, or a discharge. You (or someone else) may be able to see the foreign body in the ear canal. Never try to remove a foreign body yourself, as you may push it deeper into the ear canal. This might damage the eardrum. It is best to see your doctor. Foreign bodies can usually be removed with forceps or by flushing them out with water (irrigation).

Trauma or injury

Poking things into your ear, such as cotton buds or sharp objects, can cause damage to the ear canal. This can cause soreness which usually goes away on its own. It may go on to become infected, however. So if the pain does not settle, or if you start to have a discharge, see your doctor.

To avoid damage don’t poke anything in your ear, even if it itches or you think you have wax there.

The eardrum can be torn (perforated) by objects poked into the ear. This can also happen due to other injuries such as a very loud noise or a slapped or boxed ear. Other more serious head injuries can also cause damage to the eardrum. A perforated eardrum usually causes a very sudden and severe pain. There may be some bleeding from the ear or you may not be able to hear as well. A perforated eardrum usually heals up on its own very well. However, if the pain or other symptoms do not settle, you should see your doctor.

See the separate leaflet called Perforated Eardrum for more information.

Flying and diving

The changes in pressure as a plane starts to descend commonly cause pain in the ear. This usually settles quickly. Similar problems can happen when scuba diving or even when going down in a lift. If pain carries on a few days after flying or diving, you should see a doctor.

For more information, and tips about how to improve this type of earache, see the separate leaflets called Ears and Flying and Barotrauma of the Ear.

Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE

Boils, spots and pimples

Boils, spots and pimples can occur on the ear just like anywhere else on your body. If they are on the outside of the ear, you will be able to see them. If they are in the ear canal you may not be able to see where the pain is coming from. A small spot or boil will usually improve on its own with warm bathing. However, if it is very large or red or painful, you may need to see a doctor for advice. It may need an antibiotic medicine, or lancing with a needle.

See the separate leaflet called Boil in the Ear Canal for more information.

Pain coming from somewhere else (referred pain)

Referred pain is pain felt in one part of the body from a problem elsewhere in the body. Sometimes a pain in the ear is nothing to do with the ear but is coming from somewhere else. Causes of referred pain in the ear include:

  • Problems with teeth, such as teething in children, an emerging wisdom tooth or dental abscesses.
  • Sore throats and tonsillitis.
  • Problems with the gullet (oesophagus), such as reflux or inflammation.
  • Problems with the salivary glands, such as stones or infections.
  • Problems with the jaw joint, such as arthritis.

Shingles

Shingles is a condition where the virus which causes chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus) is reactivated in just one nerve. It causes pain and a rash in the area of skin which that nerve supplies. Occasionally shingles can affect the nerve which supplies the ear. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain inside the ear or on the outer ear, or both.
  • A blistery rash on the ear.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Dizziness.
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus).
  • Weakness of one side of the face, so the face looks lopsided.

If you think you might have shingles around the ear, see a doctor as soon as possible. If treatment is required, it works best if it is started early. However, not all cases of shingles need treatment.

See the separate leaflet called Shingles (Herpes Zoster) for more information.

What should I do if I have earache?

If you feel well in yourself and have an earache, you may be able to treat yourself with simple painkillers. Paracetamol or ibuprofen, if you can take it, usually works well for ear pain. However, a person with earache should see a doctor if:

  • They are unwell in themself with other symptoms such as a high temperature (fever), a rash, being sick (vomiting), confusion or drowsiness.
  • They are younger than 3 months.
  • They are younger than 6 months and have a temperature of more than 38°C.
  • They are younger than 2 years and have pain in both ears.
  • The earache has not improved after four days.
  • The ear is discharging.
  • There is something stuck in the ear.
  • The pain is very severe and simple painkillers are not helping.
  • They have other illnesses which might affect their ability to fight off an infection.

Other ear problems

Discharge from the ear

A number of different conditions can cause discharge from the ear. Many of these are discussed in the sections above. The more common ones include:

  • A burst (perforated) eardrum. This is discussed above in the trauma and injury section. Another common cause of a perforated eardrum is otitis media, also discussed above. In this condition the inflamed eardrum becomes so stretched that it bursts. The infected pus (mucus) in the middle ear then leaks out along the ear canal and can be seen. Typically, when this happens, a child has had an earache for a few days and then it suddenly becomes worse. Then the pus appears and usually the pain improves. This is because the eardrum is not being stretched so tightly anymore. An eardrum burst in this way usually heals up very well. However, antibiotics may be prescribed for the infection, so see your doctor.
  • Outer ear infection (otitis externa).
  • A foreign body in the ear.

Rare causes include:

  • A cholesteatoma. This is the name for a build-up of cells causing a lump behind the eardrum. For more information, see the separate leaflet called Cholesteatoma.
  • Skull fractures.
  • Tumours.

Normally you will need to see a doctor to establish the cause of the discharge and the best treatment.

Glue ear

This is discussed in full in a separate leaflet called Glue Ear. It is a condition where the middle ear fills up with a glue-like fluid instead of air. It usually occurs in children who have had a number of middle ear infections. It causes dulled hearing. Occasionally it can cause earache.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a ringing or buzzing noise heard inside the ear. It is discussed in full in a separate leaflet called Tinnitus. The most common cause for this is age-related changes in the ear. This occurs commonly along with age-related hearing loss. Sometimes it is caused by another condition, such as Ménière’s disease, noise damage or ear infections. Your doctor will rule out an underlying cause.

Hearing loss (deafness)

Many of the conditions discussed elsewhere in this leaflet can cause hearing loss. One of the main functions of your ear is to allow you to hear. Therefore almost anything that goes wrong with it can affect your hearing. Depending on the condition this can be temporary or permanent, treatable or not. If the hearing loss comes on suddenly with earache and/or discharge, it is most likely to be due to an infection. If it comes on gradually as you get older, it is more likely to be due to age-related hearing loss (presbyacusis). Wax is a common, easily treated cause of hearing loss. In children, glue ear is a common cause of hearing loss.

See your doctor if you have hearing loss. They will be able to establish the cause. Depending on the cause, they may be able to treat it. Even if it can’t be treated (for example, age-related hearing loss), your doctor will be able to refer you for hearing aids. These can make an enormous difference to your life.

See the separate leaflets called Hearing Problems and Hearing Tests for more information.

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