Earache

Ear pain or earache is very common in children and can also affect adults. See your doctor if you or a family member – especially a child or baby – has earache.

Key points

  1. Ear pain can be sharp, dull or throbbing and your ears may feel blocked and your hearing muffled.
  2. There are several factors that cause earache, the most common being an ear infection.
  3. Pain from an ear infection comes on rapidly and usually wears off within 24 hours. 
  4. Ear pain can be eased with pain relief medication such as paracetamol and by applying a heat pack to the affected ear.
  5. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the earache is due to an ear infection caused by bacteria.

What causes earache?

An ear infection is the most common cause of ear pain. The infection often begins as a cold, flu, sinus infection or throat infection and spreads to the middle ear (otitis media) where it causes ear pain and often fever. 

Other causes include:

  • Earwax build-up or blockage – a piece of hard earwax can cause ear pain or discomfort. If the earwax is pushed deeper by cotton buds, the ear canal can become blocked and cause more pain. Read more about earwax build-up and removal.
  • Swimmer's ear – frequent swimming can cause an infection or irritation in your outer ear because of water that remains in your ear canal. This can cause pain and itching in your ear. Read more about swimmer's ear.
  • Injury to your ear canal – a fingernail, cotton bud or any other object can cause injury to your ear canal causing ear pain.
  • An object in the ear canal – young children may put small objects in their ear canal. It can cause pain, especially if the object is sharp or pushed in a long way.
  • Abscess in your ear canal – an infection of a hair follicle in the ear canal can be very painful. It looks like a small red bump, and sometimes turns into a pimple.
  • Airplane ear – if the ear canal is blocked, sudden increases in air pressure can cause the eardrum to stretch, resulting in severe ear pain. This usually happens during air travel, when the plane is coming down for landing, or when driving at high altitudes.   
  • Referred pain – referred pain is felt in your ear but is due to something that is not in your ear, such as a tonsil infection, tooth decay or mumps

What are the symptoms of earache?

Earache pain can be sharp, dull or throbbing. Your ears may also feel blocked and your hearing may sound muffled. Older children will tell you if they have a sore ear. Babies and young children with earache may:

  • cry or grizzle
  • keep touching an ear again and again
  • have fluid running out of their ear 
  • have a fever.

When should I see a doctor about earache?

See your doctor if you or a family member has earache. If it is a baby or young child, call your doctor or nurse immediately.

If the earache is due to an ear infection caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

Get back to your doctor quickly if you or your child has:

  • new discharge from the ear canal
  • dizziness, nausea or vomiting
  • a severe headache, stiff neck or really bad pain in the ear.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you’re not sure what to do.

How can ear pain be relieved?

As well as seeing your doctor, try the following self-care measures:

  • Use pain relief medicine such as paracetamol (or pamol for children).
  • Hold a warm cloth, wheat bag or hot water bottle to the affected ear.
  • Suck on a lolly to increase swallowing.
  • Lie with the affected ear against your pillow or sit propped up in bed.
  • If discharge is leaking from the ear, gently wash the outer ear with soap and a cloth.
  • Don’t use eardrops unless your doctor tells you to.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about earache. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Earache Patient Info, UK, 2018
Earwax build-up and removal Health Navigator, NZ, 2015 

References

  1. Earache Ministry of Health, NZ, 2014 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr J Bycroft, GP Last reviewed: 16 Mar 2016