What Is an Earache?

Earache is mild to severe pain experienced in the inner, middle or outer ear.

The pain you experience may feel sharp, dull or like a burning sensation. The duration of the pain might stop and start or be constant.

The pain or discomfort is often accompanied by a feeling of pressure or blockage. If your ear canal is blocked it’s likely you’ll temporarily experience conductive hearing loss.

Sometimes ear pain is the result of pain originating from elsewhere in your body. This is called referred pain and occurs because the pain signals travel along the same nerve pathways to the brain. An example is a severe sore throat causing referral pain in your ear.

Signs and symptoms

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Earache?

If you're an adult the signs and symptoms of earache include:

  • ear pain and discomfort
  • difficulty hearing
  • a feeling of pressure in your ears.

For children who may be less able to describe an earache they might:

  • frequently rub and pull their ear(s)
  • be more irritable than usual
  • eat less than normal
  • experience hearing loss symptoms
  • have trouble keeping their balance
  • have a high temperature.

What Causes an Earache?

For children the most common cause or earache is an ear infection.

For adults, an Earache is can still be caused by an ear infection, but may also be caused by:

  • a hardened build-up of earwax
  • an object stuck inside the ear
  • a hole in your eardrum or tympanic membrane rupture
  • rapid changes in air pressure, such as when you take off or land in a plane
  • referred pain from a throat infection
  • a problem with the joint of your jaw bone
  • dental issues such as an abscess

Earache may affect one or both ears, but the majority of the time it is in one ear. The pain it causes can be worrying, but it will often get better in a few days without treatment.

Sometimes earache is not caused by an underlying condition or disease. Other causes of ear pain include:

  • earbuds that are too big or are the wrong shape
  • jaw clenching 
  • teeth grinding
  • ear piercing
  • resting your head or sleeping on hard surfaces.
Risk factors

How Common Is Earache and What Are the Risk Factors?

An earache is quite a common complaint, especially in children.

Age is the biggest risk factor for earache. Most ear infections that contribute to earache are caused by Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD). ETD is more common in children due to anatomy. A child has a smaller and more horizontal Eustachian tube that gets blocked more easily. 

Ear infection or acute otitis media (AOM) is a common infection in young children, with studies in developed countries finding up to 80% of children under three years of age have had at least one episode.

In a 2012 study, the incidence of OAM in New Zealand children under five years was 27% over a period of one year. They also found there was no difference in rates of earache between Maori, Pacific and ‘Other’ ethnicities, and incidence declined with age.

Other risk factors include

  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Not being breastfed
  • Exposure to smoke from wood fires
  • One or more parents or carers smoke tobacco
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Poor hygiene
  • Access to medical services
  • Overcrowded living circumstances, and
  • Environmental conditions.

4 Ways To Help Relieve Ear Pain

With mild to moderate ear pain you may try to relieve some pain and inflammation at home.

However, if the pain persists, or becomes severe please seek medical attention.

When taking over-the-counter medications remember they may interact with prescription drugs and may also have side effects. Always check with a medical practitioner or pharmacist if you’re not sure.

1. Hold a cool or warm compress to the outside of your ear.
2. Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help relieve pain and inflammation.
3. Try to remain as upright as possible when resting or sleeping.
4. Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid.
Seeking Medical Care

When To Consider Medical Care for Earache

You should seek immediate medical attention from a healthcare professional if your earache is the result of something that is stuck in your ear.

Do not attempt to remove the foreign object yourself. Contact your nearest Ear Health clinic, GP, or call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Seek urgent medical advice if you have an earache and:

  • a high temperature (fever) over 39°C
  • severe ear pain (especially if it stops suddenly as this is a sign the eardrum may have ruptured)
  • vomiting
  • a severe sore throat
  • swelling or pain around the ear
  • discharge from the ear
  • sudden hearing loss
  • the earache doesn’t improve after three days 
  • the earache keeps returning.

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