Earache (Ear Pain, Otalgia)
What is ear pain?
Earache (ear pain) is one of the most common reasons we take our children to see their healthcare provider or we seek help for our own painful ears. Earaches can be a symptom of ear infections or a sign of an underlying condition. Rarely, an earache or ear pain is a sign of a serious illness. Treatment depends on the cause.
Who’s affected by earache?
Just about anyone can develop earaches. However, young children are more likely to have ear pain than older children and adults. One study shows that by their third birthday, 80% of children will have a middle ear infection (acute otitis media).
Symptoms and Causes
What does it mean when my ears hurt?
Many things may make your ears hurt. Healthcare providers place ear pain in two categories: primary and secondary.
- Primary ear pain comes from your ears. For example, ear infections cause primary ear pain. More children than adults have primary ear pain. Primary ear pain typically gets worse over time.
- Secondary ear pain happens when your ears become innocent bystanders to medical conditions that affect other parts of your body. For example, someone who has an impacted wisdom tooth may have ear pain. This is referred pain. Referred pain happens because your ears and nearby body parts share the same nerves with your brain.
Here is more information on common primary and secondary ear pain causes and symptoms:
|Common Primary Ear Pain Causes||Ear Pain Symptoms|
(Caused by extreme pressure change).
|Your ears start hurting or feel full while you’re flying in an airplane or scuba diving. Barotrauma can cause ruptured eardrums.|
|Foreign object in your child’s ear.||Your ear hurts and you can’t hear as well. Small children exercising their curiosity often end up lodging small objects such as food, pebbles or beads in their ears.|
|Eustachian tube dysfunction.||Your ears hurt or feel full. You may have tinnitus (ringing in the ear) or hear popping sounds.|
|Swimmers ear (otitis externa).||Middle ear infections often happen when children have upper respiratory infections that cause congestion and make their eustachian tubes swell. If a very young child is pulling on their ears, it may be a sign they have an ear infection.|
|Otitis media (middle ear infection).||Middle ear infections often happen when children have upper respiratory infections that cause congestion and make their eustachian tubes swell. If a very young child is pulling on their ears, it may be a sign they have an ear infection.|
|Otitis interna (inner ear infection).||Symptoms include dizziness, hearing loss, nausea and vomiting and rapid involuntary eye movement.|
|Common Secondary Ear Pain Causes|
|Sore throats (pharyngitis) or tonsillitis.||You or your child have painful sore throats that either clear up quickly or persist.|
|Dental problems.||You or your child have cavities or abscessed teeth.|
|Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).||Earache or ear infections.|
|Temporomandibular joint syndrome.||Your ear(s) hurt when you open your mouth or when you chew.|
How can I tell if I have an ear infection or an earache?
People often assume an aching ear means they have an ear infection. Here’s information to help you understand the difference:
- An earache can feel as if you have pressure in your ear. Some earaches start suddenly but they can get worse over time.
- An ear infection typically happens after you have an upper respiratory infection. Symptoms include fever and feeling run down or unwell. Ear infections are more common in children than adults.
Are earaches a COVID symptom?
The COVID-19 virus affects people in different ways, but earaches are not a common symptom of COVID-19.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do healthcare providers diagnose earaches?
Your provider will ask about your symptoms. They’ll examine your ears.
What happens if healthcare providers don’t find anything wrong with my child’s ears?
If your child's ears look healthy, your provider may look for underlying conditions that may cause secondary ear pain. Depending on what they learn, they may recommend you talk to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) provider.
Management and Treatment
How do healthcare providers treat earaches?
Providers focus on finding and treating earaches’ underlying cause. For example, if your child has an ear infection, your provider may recommend over-the-counter pain medicine to ease ear pain. They may also prescribe antibiotics. Likewise, if sore throats cause your child ear pain, your provider will treat your child’s sore throat.
What can I do for ear pain?
You can try some remedies at home to ease your ear pain. Over-the-counter pain medicine may help. Some people benefit by placing warm or cold compresses on their aching ears. Keep in mind an earache may be a sign of infection or another problem. Talk to your healthcare provider if your ear pain persists for more than two or three days or gets worse.
Can earaches be prevented?
Earaches happen for lots of reasons. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing an earache:
- Protect your ears when you fly in airplanes so you don’t have barotrauma.
- Clean your ears with care. Use a swab to clean your outer ear and avoid digging into your ear canal.
- Upper respiratory infections can make your ears hurt and may cause painful ear infections. Reduce your risk of developing infections by washing your hands particularly if you’re in the habit of touching your nose, eyes and mouth. You should also avoid people who are sick.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if my child has an earache?
There are several reasons why your child may have an earache. Some earaches go away on their own. Contact your healthcare provider if your child’s earache lasts more than two days or you notice other symptoms such as fever, chills or congestion.
How do I take care of my earache?
Many things can cause earaches, from infections to changes in air pressure to underlying conditions that affect your ears. Once you know what caused your earache, ask your healthcare provider about steps you can take to reduce the risk of recurring ear problems.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
If you have earaches, here are some questions you may have:
- What caused my earache?
- Is my earache a sign of an underlying condition?
- How do you treat the problem?
- How can I prevent earaches?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Most of us will have an earache (ear pain) at some point in our lives. Earaches and ear infections are the most common reasons for children’s visits to their healthcare providers. Adults develop earaches for everyday reasons such as barotrauma from flying in an airplane to having temporomandibular joint syndrome. You may be tempted to ignore your aching ears simply because earaches are a common problem. But left untreated, earaches can become increasingly painful. More than that, earaches may be a sign of underlying medical conditions that could be serious. Talk to your healthcare provider about your ear health any time you’re concerned about earaches.
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