Earache

An earache is a sharp, dull, or burning pain in one or both ears. The pain may last a short time or be ongoing.

Considerations

The symptoms of an ear infection may include:

  • Ear pain
  • Fever

Common causes

The eustachian tube runs from the middle part of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid that is made in the middle ear. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. This may lead to pressure behind the eardrum or an ear infection.

Ear pain in adults is less likely to be from an ear infection. Pain that you feel in the ear may be coming from another place such as, your teeth, joint in the jaw (temporomandibular joint) or throat. This is called "referred" pain.

Causes of ear pain may include:

  • Short or long-term ear infection
  • Ear injury from pressure changes (from high altitudes and other causes)
  • Object stuck in the ear or buildup of ear wax
  • Hole in the eardrum
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Temporomandibular joint syndrome
  • Tooth infection

Home care

The following steps may help an earache:

  • Place a cold pack or cold wet wash cloth on the outer ear for 20 minutes to reduce pain.
  • Chewing may help relieve the pain and pressure of an ear infection.
  • Resting in an upright position instead of lying down can reduce pressure in the middle ear.
  • Over-the-counter ear drops can be used to relieve pain as long as the eardrum has not ruptured.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can provide relief.

For ear pain caused by change of altitude such as on an airplane:

  • Swallowing or chewing gum as the plane descends.

When to call your health care provider

Call your doctor if:

  • You have a high fever
  • New symptoms appear such as:
    • Dizziness
    • Severe headache
    • Swelling around the ear
    • Weakness of the face muscles
  • Severe pain suddenly stops; this may be a sign of a ruptured eardrum.
  • Symptoms (pain or fever) get worse or do not improve within 24 to 48 hours.

Prevention

The following steps can help prevent earaches:

  • Prevent outer ear infections by not putting objects in the ear.
  • Dry the ears well after bathing or swimming.
  • Take steps to control allergies. Try to avoid allergy triggers.
  • Steroid nasal spray may help reduce ear infections. However, over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants do not prevent ear infections.

Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine: Earache