Thumbnail image of: Ear: Illustration

Earache

What is an earache?

An earache is pain inside or around the ear. It may come and go or it may be constant. You may also have decreased hearing or a feeling of pressure or blockage.

What is the cause?

Earaches can be caused by:

  • Injury to the ear or jaw
  • A problem with your teeth, usually in the upper molars
  • Changes in altitude or air pressure, for example, when you fly in an airplane or drive up into a mountain area
  • Cold air, wind, or a sudden change in temperature, such as going into a warm room after you have been outdoors in cold weather
  • A buildup of earwax
  • Having something stuck in your ear

Middle ear infection is a common cause of earache. It often starts when you have a cold, sinus infection, or throat infection. The infection may cause other symptoms, such as green or yellow drainage from the nose, fever, dizziness, loss of appetite, hearing loss, and a feeling of blockage in the ear.

Your ear canal may get infected when moisture and bacteria or a fungus gets trapped in the ear. This infection can spread to the outer part of your ear. It can cause pain in or around your ear or when you touch your earlobe. You may have redness, swelling, or itching of the ear. You may also have drainage from your ear canal or trouble hearing.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

How is it treated?

The symptoms of ear infections often go away in a couple of days. Your healthcare provider may wait 1 to 3 days to see if the symptoms go away before prescribing an antibiotic. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can cause problems.

If you have earwax or something stuck in your ear, it should be removed. There are products you can buy at most drug stores to help soften and remove earwax. It is very important that you not push earwax or a foreign object (like an insect) further into the ear. You may need to see your healthcare provider to remove the earwax or the object stuck in your ear.

Other treatments depend on the cause of the earache. For example, chewing gum, drinking fluids, or sucking on candy may help stop pain caused by temperature changes or the change in pressure when you are going up or coming down in an airplane. Another way to try to relieve pressure in the ear is to blow out gently while keeping your mouth closed and nose pinched.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If you are taking an antibiotic, take the medicine for as long as your healthcare provider prescribes, even if you feel better. If you stop taking the medicine too soon, you may not kill all of the bacteria and you may get sick again.
  • For pain relief, either a cold pack or cold wet cloth or a warm moist washcloth or a covered hot water bottle on the ear for 20 minutes may help.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Don’t use any eardrops for an earache if there is drainage from the ear or there are tubes in the ears unless the drops are prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Ask your provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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