People often make an immediate association between earache and ear infection. However, discomfort in and around the ear can be caused by many different problems. This guide will cover the more common reasons for an ear ache.
Since an ear infection is such a common reason for ear pain, let’s consider this possibility first.
Most ear infections occur inside the ear. Usually there is no sign of infection on the outside. Redness, pain and swelling on the outside of the ear indicate a different type of infection.
Do you see any redness or swelling on the outside part of the ear?
The discomfort is likely related to a problem deeper in the ear canal or behind the ear drum. An infection may cause just discomfort or it may make you fell unwell with fever and body aches.
Do you have one or more of the following symptoms?
- feeling unwell
- nasal congestion or other cold symptoms
- pain when you tug on your earlobe
If the ear pain is severe, contact your doctor today. Infection is still possible.
If the ear pain is tolerable and you are not having symptoms suggestive on an infection, continue with this guide.
The type of ear discomfort can be an important clue to the cause. A feeling of pressure in the ear will often have different causes compared to a steady dull or sharp pain.
Are you feeling pressure in your ear, rather than pain?
Do you have new hearing loss associated with the pain?
So far your answers suggest that you do not have an ear infection. Sometimes pain in the ear will be caused by irritation of a nerve or by a problem that is not actually in the ear.
A problem with your jaw, teeth or gums can have pain that is felt in the ear. This is called referred pain.
If you notice more pain when you widely open your mouth or you chew, the problem may be in the temperomandibular joint (TMJ). You may also hear or feel clicking just in front of the ear.
Do you think you may have a problem with your jaw, teeth or gums?
Pain in the ear from nerve irritation can be caused by a viral infection, such as herpes simplex or herpes zoster (shingles). These herpes viruses are not the sexually transmitted herpes viruses.
If you get a rash on your scalp or face that looks like little water blisters, a herpes infection in the nerve is the probable cause of ear pain.
Do you have a rash on your scalp or face?
Based on your answers, you don’t have one of the more common causes of ear pain. Contact your doctor if the pain persists.
Contact your doctor. Some herpes infections heal faster when treated with oral anti-viral medication.
Contact your dentist regarding a problem with your teeth or gums. For TMJ, you can contact either your doctor or your dentist. Often doctors and dentists work together to treat TMJ.
Ear pain accompanied by hearing loss should always prompt a call to your doctor’s office.
Call immediately if you have you recently had a blow to your ear or head or you have very recently been scuba diving or at a high altitude. You may have damaged the ear.
To keep air pressure equal on both sides of the eardrum, a thin tube called the Eustachian tube connects the inside cavity of the ear to the back of the throat. Pressure inside the ear can build up if the Eustachian tube that keeps ear pressure in balance becomes blocked.
The Eustachian tube can become blocked in the setting of a cold or allergy, especially when nasal congestion is present. Poor function of the Eustachian tube also can occur with sudden changes in air pressure such as scuba diving and airplane landings.
Is your nose congested?
The two most common reasons for a feeling of pressure without other symptoms are a blocked eustachian tube and excessive earwax plugging the ear canal.
For eustachian tube dysfunction, try decongestants and keep yourself well hydrated.
Call your doctor if your symptoms persist.
Try non-prescription antihistamines and decongestants. Call your doctor if your symptoms persist for more than one week.
You probably have an ear infection called otitis media. This type of ear infection is often associated with nasal congestion, diminished hearing, feeling unwell, and fever.
With infections of the ear canal, also called swimmer’s ear, gently tugging on the ear lobe causes pain, but nasal congestion and cold symptoms are less likely to occur.
Contact your doctor today.
Contact your doctor. You probably have an infection of the ear canal that is extending outside enough to be seen. Alternatively this could be a skin infection called cellulitis. Both conditions require prompt attention and usually antibiotic treatment.
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