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What's an earache?

Updated on March 29, 2012

Ear Pain

An earache is a symptom of injury or disease affecting the external or middle ear. It may also be a symptom of an ailment in the mouth, throat, or nose. An earache is usually caused by fluid putting pressure in the tympanic membrane or eardrum. Normally, the Eustachian tube drains fluid out from the middle ear through the back of the throat, however, a swollen or inflamed eustachian tube prevents the normal drainage of fluid, causing pain, pressure, and the growth of viruses and bacteria.

Ear pain is most commonly caused by the accumulation of fluid in the middle ear, causing pressure behind the eardrum. The middle ear is connected to the nasal passages by the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube lets the excess fluid flow out from the middle ear, thus keeping the same pressure inside the middle ear as it is outside. Conditions, such as a cold, sore throat, or an allergy can block the Eustachian tube, preventing the fluid from draining properly.

A perforated eardrum may result from infection, causing pain in the ear. Earaches may also result from rapid descent from high altitudes (mountain or air travel). The introduction of objects in the ear may cause infection, as well as the accumulation of wax. Swimmer´s ear and keratosis of the ear may cause pain, as well.

Pain in the Ear

Pain in the Ear
Pain in the Ear

Usual Symptoms

An earache may be a symptom of other disorders related to the nose, mouth, or throat that could be disturbing the ear. The usual symptoms of otitis externa include a ringing sound, itchiness, swelling, and mucus drainage from the ear. In otitis media the most common symptom is pain. Other symptoms might include discharge plugged ear, and hearing loss. Children often show hearing loss during the course and right after the course of an ear infection.

Using an Otoscope


Diagnosing the Problem

To diagnose the problem, a doctor will usually perform a medical history examination of the patient; a physical exam, including the ears (using an otoscope), the sinuses, nasal passages, and throat can help diagnose the problem. A discharge from the ears may require a culture test. A computed tomography (CT) scan and X-rays may be performed, as well as balancing and hearing tests.

A health care professional should be consulted if the earache is accompanied by discharge, severe pain, a fever of up to 102°F (38.8°C), tenderness, or redness over the mastoid process (projection behind the ear), dizziness, earache that worsens while chewing, or an earache that lasts for up to a few days. The most common medicaments used for earache are antibiotics, antihistamines, and decongestants.

Gum chewing may relieve ear pain caused by changes in altitude; bottle sucking may relieve ear pain in young children. Muscle relaxants and tranquilizers may be prescribed for temporary relief. Olive oil or over-the counter ear drops may relieve an earache. Pain relievers, including ibuprofen and acetaminophen may bring relief to earache sufferers.

It is recommended to wear cotton plugs in the ears while taking a shower to prevent water from entering the ear canal; it is advised to completely dry the ears after swimming to avoid getting “swimmer´s ear.” Cotton swabs and other objects should not be introduced into the ear canal to prevent hurting the ear, and the immune system should be maintained in optimum condition to prevent infection.

It is recommended to stop smoking near children, as smoke has shown to cause ear infection in children. It is a good habit to completely dry your ear after every shower. Always try not to place objects inside your ear to prevent infection. Avoid allergies and take the necessary steps to reduce ear infections, and always consult your health care provider.


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