Earache

Ear pain or earache is very common in children and can also affect adults. Pain can be sharp, dull, or throbbing and your ears may feel blocked and your hearing muffled.

What are the causes of earache?

Pain in the ear can be caused by a number of factors such as:

  • Ear infection
    • The most common cause of ear pain is infection of the middle ear (also called otitis media). 
    • Often this comes on with or soon after cold and flu symptoms such as a runny nose, cough and upper airways congestion. 
  • Earwax build-up or blockage
    • A piece of hard earwax can cause ear pain or discomfort.
    • If the earwax has been pushed by cotton buds, the ear canal can become blocked, and may cause the pain to be worse. Read more about earwax.
  • Swimmer's ear
    • Frequent swimming can cause an infection or irritation in the outer ear because of water that remains in the ear canal. This can cause pain and itching in the ear. Read more about swimmer's ear.
  • Injury to the ear canal
    • A fingernail, cotton bud, or any other object can cause injury to the ear canal causing ear pain.
  • Foreign 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 very far.
  • Abscess in the 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, and result in severe ear pain. This usually starts during air travel, when the plane is coming down for landing, or it can also happen during mountain driving (driving at high altitudes).   
  • Referred pain
    • Referred pain is due to other disease not in the ear such as tonsil infection, tooth decay or mumps. 

What are the symptoms of earache?

Pain felt during an earache 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 with earache may:

  • cry or grizzle
  • keep touching an ear again and again
  • get a runny ear 
  • have a fever.

When to see a doctor about earache?

Babies

If your baby is showing symptoms of earache described above, contact your doctor immediately. Your doctor will need to look in your baby's ear to find the cause. 

Children and adults

See your doctor if you or an older child you are lookig after has ear pain that lasts for more than 2 days despite the use of pain relief such as paracetamol or has ear pain and:

  • are feeling unwell
  • has a fever
  • has a runny or leaky ear.

What are the treatment options for earache?

If an adult or older child has ear pain and is otherwise well, try the following self-care measures:

  • Hold a warm cloth, wheat bag or hot water bottle to the affected ear.
  • Suck on a lolly to increase swallowing.
  • Use pain relief medicine such as paracetamol (or pamol for children)

If the ear pain continues for 2 days or more despite the use of pain relief, see your doctor.

Swimmers ear:

  • If the ear pain is likely because of swimmer's ear (after frequent swimming), try using over-the-counter ear drops for swimmer's ear that can be bought from your pharmacy.
  • This can help dry out excess moisture.
  • If the ear pain continues for 2 days or more despite the use of ear drops, see your doctor.   

Ear wax:

  • If the pain is likely due to wax build up, try using over-the-counter ear drops that can be bought from your pharmacy.
  • This helps to soften the wax, so that it can fall out naturally.
  • If the ear pain continues for 2 days or more despite the use of ear drops, see your doctor.  

When are antibiotics used?

  • If ear pain is due to an infection caused by bacteria, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics.
  • If you are given antibiotics, ensure they are taken exactly as your doctor or pharmacist told you. The pain should settle in a few days. Continue with the antibiotic until it is finished.
  • If you are caring for a child with earache, when the antibiotic is finished, take your child back to the doctor or mobile hearing clinic specialist nurse for a check. Only a doctor or nurse can tell if the infection is properly cleared.

Learn more

Earache/Ear Pain and Other Ear Problems Patient Info, UK

Credits: Health Navigator Team. Reviewed By: Dr J Bycroft, GP Last reviewed: 16 Mar 2016