Parents know how common earaches are in children, but adults can get frequent ear pain, too. You don’t have to have an infection, or even anything wrong with your ears, to have ear pain.
These are the most common causes:
Your ear makes and gets rid of wax all the time. When the process doesn’t work well, the gunk builds up and hardens so your ear canal gets blocked. Your doctor will call this impacted wax. Sometimes, it causes pain.
Don’t use cotton swabs or other objects to try to get wax out. You'll just push it farther into your ear canal and make it more likely to get impacted. Your ear might hurt, itch, discharge gunk, or get infected. You could even lose your hearing for a while.
You can treat mildly impacted ears at home with over-the-counter ear drops that soften the wax so it can naturally drain. Or go see your doctor if the wax has hardened. She can get the wax out without damaging the eardrum. Learn more about earwax.
Most of the time, your ear does a great job of keeping pressure equal on both sides of your eardrum. That little pop you feel when you swallow is part of the process. But quick changes, like when you’re on an airplane or in an elevator, can throw off the balance. Your ear might hurt, and you could have trouble hearing. This is typically a eustachian tube dysfunction which can be a chronic in some people.
To avoid problems on a plane:
- Chew gum, suck on hard candy, or yawn and swallow during takeoff and landing.
- Stay awake while the plane descends.
- Take a deep breath, pinch your nostrils shut, then gently try to blow air out of your nose.
- Avoid air travel and diving when you have a cold, a sinus infection, or allergy symptoms.
Learn more about air pressure and your ears.
If your ear hurts when you pull on your earlobe or push on the tiny flap that closes it, you probably have this outer ear infection. You get it when water trapped in your ear canal begins to breed germs. Your ear might get red, swollen, or itch and leak pus. It isn’t contagious. To avoid it, keep your ears dry during and after swimming. Your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotic ear drops to clear it up. Learn more about swimmer's ear.
Middle Ear Infection
A cold, allergies, or a sinus infection can block the tubes in your middle ear. When fluid builds up and gets infected, your doctor will call it otitis media. This is the most common cause of ear pain. If your doctor thinks the cause is a bacteria, she may prescribe antibiotics. If not, then she may recommend a decongestant allergy treatment with an antihistamine and a nasal steroid. Let her know if your pain doesn’t improve or returns. If it isn’t treated, a middle ear infection can spread or cause hearing loss. Learn more about ear infection treatments.
You may feel pain in your ears even when the source is somewhere else in your body, like a toothache. That’s because the nerves in your face and neck pass very close to your inner ear. Doctors call this type of pain that starts in one area but is felt in another “referred pain.”
If your earache comes with a severe sore throat, it could be an infection like tonsillitis or pharyngitis. In fact, ear pain is often the worst symptom of one of these conditions. Learn more about sore throat symptoms.
Tooth abscesses, cavities, and impacted molars also can cause ear pain. Your doctor will be able to tell if your teeth are to blame by tapping on a tooth or your gums to see if they feel sore. Learn more about toothaches.
The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, is the “hinge” of your jaw that sits directly below your ears. You might get TMJ pain from grinding your teeth, or it could be a symptom of arthritis. The ache in your ears or face comes after you chew, talk, or yawn. To treat it, take over-the-counter pain medicine and put warm compresses on your jaw. Try not to clench your teeth. You may benefit from using a mouth guard when you sleep. This can help ease the tension that causes ear pain. Eating soft foods will help, too. Learn more about causes of jaw pain.
Some causes of ear pain can be serious such as tumors or infections, including cellulitis or shingles. If your ear pain is severe, doesn’t go away within a few days of home treatment, or comes with a high fever or sore throat, or you get a new rash, visit your doctor right away for treatment and to rule out something more serious.