What Is an Earache?
An earache is a medical condition involving pain in one or both ears. The origin of that pain may be the ear itself or another part of the body. Earache pain can take a variety of forms: a regular dull throb, a burning sensation, or occasional sharp stabs. Earaches have been linked to a wide range of medical issues and concerns. They can occur at any age but are most common in children.
In extreme cases, earache pain can be intense, disorienting, and associated with hearing loss, usually temporary. If you or your child is suffering from an earache, visit your nearest Baptist Health Urgent Care location.
Signs and Symptoms
Earache signs and symptoms typically include:
- Sharp or dull pain in one or both ears
- Difficulty hearing (due to fluid or other forms of blockage)
- Discharge from the ears (otorrhea)
- Jaw pain
- Sore throat
- Redness and swelling around the ear
Children often exhibit additional, infection-related symptoms, including fever, irritability, headache, loss of appetite, nighttime restlessness, disorientation, and a tendency to scratch or pull at their ears.
The ear is a complex sensory organ that enables us to perceive sound. Medical practitioners have divided it into three parts: the inner, middle, and outer ears. Ear pain can have its origin in any of the three parts of the ear. Earaches have a variety of causes, many of them involving infections or irritation in one or more parts of the ear.
The outer ear includes the visible part of your ear and the ear canal. Common causes of outer earaches include:
- Skin infections or irritations
- Physical injury or trauma, especially to the ear drum
- Waxy buildup in the ear canal
- Penetration of the ear by a foreign object
- Water retention in the ear canal (“swimmer’s ear”)
Inside the eardrum is the middle ear, which includes the tiny, soundwave-sensitive bones known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup (the malleus, incus, and stapes). Middle earaches are caused by:
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Blockage of the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the throat, allowing for equalization of air pressure at the eardrum.
- Infections of the middle ear interfere with the equalization process. Unequal pressure on the two sides of the eardrum irritates nerve endings and causes pain.
The inner ear includes the cochlea, which helps convert soundwaves to heard sound, and the vestibular system, which plays a role in maintaining the body’s sense of balance. Inner earaches are caused by:
- Tissue inflammations
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Labyrinthitis is an inner ear infection that causes vertigo, or loss of the sense of balance, rather than ear pain.
Other Sources of Earaches
Earaches are sometimes tied to medical conditions originating outside the ear. Common among these are:
- Pain in the temporomandibular joint (where the jaw attaches to the skull)
- Toothaches and impacted teeth
- Throat inflammations
- Cranial nerve inflammations
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Infection of the bony hollows adjacent to the ears (the mastoids)
- Thyroid disease
- Abrupt changes in air pressure (e.g., jet takeoffs and landings, scuba diving, etc.)
Earache symptoms are often temporary and diminish as you recover from infection or injury. There are, however, steps you can take to reduce discomfort while you’re waiting on your body’s healing process:
- Take over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin (the latter being limited to persons 16 years or older)
- Use over-the-counter eardrops
- Keep the ears dry while bathing or showering
- Sit and sleep upright to reduce pressure on the ear drums
- Apply warm or cold compresses to the ears (or both in alternation)
- Chew gum to relieve ear pressure
- Feed infants to distract from their discomfort
- If ear pain is severe, or associated with a fever that is 101F or higher, seek medical attention. Your physician might:
- Prescribe eardrops or antibiotics, if ear pain is a symptom of infection
- Flush out ear wax or other buildup in the ears
- Arrange for treatment of a related medical condition (such as temporomandibular joint pain), if it is the source of the earache
Depending on the severity of your condition, your physician may refer you to an otolaryngologist – an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. The latter can provide advanced treatment for more serious ear problems, such as a ruptured eardrum. One common surgical procedure called myringotomy involves the insertion of small tubes in the ear to improve drainage and assist in equalizing air pressure. This has proven effective in treating children with recurrent ear problems.
Earaches aren’t always preventable, but you might consider:
- Wearing earplugs and drying your ears thoroughly after bathing or being in the water
- Avoiding pollen, dust, and other allergens
- Keeping physical objects out of your ears (including Q-Tips)
- Limiting your exposure to cigarettes and other smoke sources
Children are especially vulnerable to developing earaches. They should have their ears checked regularly by a physician.
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