Ear pain can range from mild annoyance to crippling discomfort, and unexplained earaches can lead to unwanted stress and concern.

From frantically googling “reasons why my ear is sore,” to worry about the long-term effects on your hearing, dealing with an earache can be a nerve-wracking experience.

Our ears are responsible not only for one of our most important senses but also for maintaining our balance and regulating air pressure. But despite the crucial jobs they perform, ears are delicate structures.

Any number of things could cause an earache, including earwax buildup or ear infections. A sore ear can even be caused by another part of your body, like grinding your teeth in your sleep.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a sore ear, read on to learn about possible ear pain causes.

Impacted Earwax Causing Ear Pain

Earwax is an important protective barrier in the ear.  It’s water-repellent, which means it protects the sensitive ear canal every time you go for a swim or have a shower.

Earwax is also antibacterial, so it protects the ears from infection. Without it, our ears would be much more prone to disease and unwanted intruders.

But if the earwax builds up in excess, or becomes hard and impacted, it can cause discomfort and even conductive hearing loss.

Here are some of the most common reasons for earwax blockage, and how to solve this issue.

Using Cotton Buds to Remove Wax

It’s fairly common to incorrectly use cotton buds to attempt to wipe out earwax. People often consider it a necessary step for personal hygiene. But doing this can have very negative impacts.

Pushing a cotton bud or any other foreign object into the ear canal usually doesn’t remove all wax. Instead, doing this may push earwax further down into the ear canal.

The earwax then becomes tightly packed, forming a sort of dam in the ear canal that can lead to temporary hearing loss and discomfort.

If you currently use cotton buds in your ears, give it a rest and rely instead on trained medical professionals for earwax removal.

Other Causes of Earwax  Buildup

Older people are at higher risk for buildup and blockage because of changes to the glands inside the ear. This change can make earwax drier and harder.

And if you frequently use earplugs or hearing aids, you may also be prone to earwax buildup.

Certain skin or autoimmune diseases, like eczema or lupus, can also lead to excess earwax production and buildup.

Jaw, Tooth, or Throat Problems

Your ears are closely connected to the mandible, the strong bone that makes up your jaw, as well as to your throat. So if you’ve been grinding your teeth or have strep throat or tonsillitis, your ears can also be affected.

This is called referred pain because the cause isn’t due to your ears but to another part of your body.

Referred pain is the reason for an estimated 50% of all reported earaches in adults. Because of this, it is especially important to see a medical provider to determine the cause of your ear pain and get proper treatment.

Ear Infection

There are many types of ear infections that may occur in the outer, middle or inner ear.

Ear infections are common causes of ear pain for the littlest members of our families. According to the Journal of Primary Health Care, an estimated 27% of New Zealand children under the age of 5 experience middle ear infections.

While they aren’t unusual, they should still be treated by a medical professional as soon as possible to alleviate discomfort and protect the ears.

If you notice your child is fussier than usual, or if they are constantly tugging at their earlobes, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a medical provider as soon as you can.

Most ear infections will go away on their own, but some may require antibiotic treatment. Therefore it’s best to go see a medical professional if an earache lasts more than 24 hours.

Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer’s ear is a colloquial term for an outer ear infection.

While middle ear infections happen in the space behind the eardrum (that is not visible to the naked eye), outer ear infections happen in the space between the ear opening and the eardrum.

An outer ear infection may occur as a result of excess moisture in the ear canal. This provides the ideal environment for pathogens to flourish.

Swimming in water with a heavy bacterial presence is more likely to put you at risk of swimmer’s ear.

Infection can also be caused by water not draining completely from your ear canal after swimming.

After submerging your head in water, be sure to use a towel to wipe water from your ears or tilt your head to the side to let it drain out.

If there is a lack of earwax in your ear canal to protect it from moisture and bacteria infection is more likely.

If you frequently clean out your ears with cotton swabs or washcloths, you’re stripping them of their natural defences and leaving yourself vulnerable to infection.

Symptoms of outer ear infections include ear pain that persists for more than 24 hours, redness, swelling, fluid leakage, and itching.

You should always contact your doctor if you believe you have an outer ear infection, even if your symptoms are mild.


If you’ve ever been on an aeroplane and felt an ache or a pressure in your ear, you’ve experienced a form of barotrauma.

Barotrauma happens when the barometric pressure, aka air pressure, is different between your inner ear and your outer ear.

The culprit is often the Eustachian tube, which connects your ear to your throat.

The Eustachian tube opens when there is a change in air pressure and helps to equalize the pressure in your ear, and is also responsible for draining fluid from your ear. Sometimes, the Eustachian tube doesn’t open in the event of a pressure change which leads to an earache.

This is called Eustachian tube dysfunction and can be caused or worsened by having allergies, a cold, or a sinus infection. Some common causes of barotrauma include aeroplane travel, diving, and travelling to higher altitudes.

It often goes away on its own or by doing exercises to open your eustachian tube, like yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum. If your barotrauma doesn’t resolve itself, however, it’s best to see a medical specialist.

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

As mentioned above, Eustachian tube dysfunction occurs when the Eustachian tube doesn’t open on its own to equalize pressure, which can lead to ear pain and a feeling of fullness.

Eustachian tube dysfunction is a common condition and usually resolves on its own, however, certain people might be more prone. Children, in particular, are more at risk due to the fact that their Eustachian tubes are smaller.

Signs of ETD include ear pain, a feeling of fullness in the ear, unusual sounds such as ringing or popping, and dizziness.

If you are sick with a cold, the flu, a sinus infection, or anything else that causes congestion and you are experiencing Eustachian tube dysfunction, treating the congestion might relieve your ETD symptoms.

You can also try the Valsalva maneuver. One way to do this is to close your mouth, pinch your nose, and breathe out like you are filling a balloon.

If your symptoms are severe or don’t improve when your congestion does, it’s best to speak to a medical professional.

Foreign Objects

Sometimes, an object or insect may become lodged in your ear. This is especially common with small children.

It’s usually apparent when you have something in your own ear, but if your small child complains of ear pain or is consistently tugging at or rubbing their ear, you should check to see if any object is visible.

Other symptoms include muffled hearing or ringing in the ear, inflammation, and redness. It’s best to contact a medical professional rather than to attempt removal on your own, to ensure that it isn’t pushed further into the ear canal.

Book an Appointment

Earaches are not only a frustrating cause of discomfort for you and your family members, but they can also be underlying symptoms of infections or other problems throughout your body.

With over 25 years of experience and 60 locations across New Zealand, the specialists at EarHealth are trained to be able to quickly identify and either provide treatment, advice or an efficient referral pathway.

Whether it be an excess of earwax or an outer ear infection, EarHealth has you covered. Book an appointment today to bid farewell to ear pain!

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