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What causes an earache?

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

Earache can be painful.

Earache is generally caused by an ear infection, but can also be caused by:

  • a hardened build-up of earwax or an object stuck inside the ear;
  • changes in air pressure, such as when you take off or land in a plane (called aeroplane ear);
  • injury to the inside of the ear;
  • referred pain from a throat infection;
  • a problem with the joint of your jaw bone; and
  • dental issues such as an abscess.

When to contact your Ear Nurse

You should seek immediate medical attention 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.

Please seek assistance if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • a high temperature (fever)
  • 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, and
  • the earache doesn’t improve (or gets worse) within a couple of days.

Four things you can do to help relieve the pain and discomfort

With mild to moderate ear pain you can try to relieve some pain and inflammation at home. However, if the pain persists, or becomes severe please seek medical advice. When taking over-the-counter medications remember they may interact with prescription drugs and may also have side effects. Always check with a health care professional or pharmacist if you’re not sure.

  1. A cool or warm compress held to the outside of the ear causing you discomfort might help relieve some of the pain. Make sure you avoid getting any water inside the ear canal.
  2. Over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help relieve some pain and inflammation.
  3. Try to remain as upright as possible when resting or sleeping. This will encourage fluid build up in your ear to drain, and may ease the pressure and some pain.
  4. Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid.
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