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Earache and Ear Pain

Facts and definition of earaches

  • Earache or ear pain may be due to infections and inflammation of the external, middle or inner ear as well as from structures that are located adjacent to the ear itself.
  • Earaches are a common symptom and may be due to a variety of illnesses.
  • Causes of earaches include Swimmer's ear, middle ear infections, TMJ, infections, bullous myringitis, sunburn, dermatitis, and trauma.
  • Signs and symptoms associated an earache depend upon the cause, but may include:
  • Earaches often need urgent medical care, and may be treated with natural home remedies, for example, warm compresses; OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol and others); olive oil in the affected ear, and essential oils.
  • Medical care should be sought when there is fever, ear drainage, vertigo, loss of hearing or decreased hearing associated with ear pain.
  • Evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of earache is usually done in the health-care professional's office and little testing is needed.
Picture of the structures of the ear
Picture of the structures of the ear

What causes earaches and ear pain?

The ear has many parts to it, and each may cause ache, pain or other discomfort. Pain may come from one or many parts of the ear, depending on the situation.

Causes of outer earaches

The helix and auricle form the outer part of the ear cartilage and may become inflamed and infected. Inflammation may be due many reasons including:

  • Skin infection or cellulitis
  • Sunburn
  • Chronic skin irritations, like atopic dermatitis
  • Trauma. An injured auricle is a common wrestling injury. If a hematoma (bruise/blood clot) forms, it can be very painful and may cause damage to the underlying cartilage, resulting in a cauliflower ear.
  • The ear canal may be a source of pain due to infection or trauma.

Causes of swimmer's ear (otitis externa) earache

Otitis externa is inflammation of the ear canal, and is often referred to as "swimmer's ear."

  • Irritation to the skin that lines the canal may be due to minor trauma, like trying to clean ear wax with a sharp object and causing a scratch that becomes inflamed or infected.
  • swimmer's ear describes inflammation caused by retained water in the ear canal. The dark, warm, moist area may promote bacterial growth and predispose to infection.
  • Cerumen (ear wax) impaction. Ear wax is part of the body's protective mechanism to lubricate the ear canal and prevent infection. If the wax hardens and builds excessively, it may cause significant pain. This is especially true if the wax presses against the eardrum.
  • Foreign body. When a foreign body is inserted in the ear and cannot be removed, pain and inflammation may occur. These may include Q-tips, hair pins, and other narrow objects that are often used to scratch an itch or to remove ear wax. This is never safe, and nothing should be inserted into the ear canal. In addition to irritation of the external canal, the ear drum may also be perforated or damaged.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/23/2016

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Swimmers Ear Symptoms

The most common symptom of swimmer's ear is ear pain or earache that gradually begins over a day or two. Other symptoms associated with earache pain include:

  • The ear pain almost always involves only one ear.
  • The ear canal may itch.
  • The outer ear may be red.
  • The ear may drain fluid or pus.
  • Ringing in the ear.

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