Earache: Causes, Symptoms and Treating Otalgia

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Published: 03 December 2019

Cover image for article: Earache: Causes, Symptoms and Treating Otalgia

Earache (otalgia) is the term used to describe feelings of discomfort including pain, pressure or blockage, in one or both ears.

(Note: this article is intended to provide an overview of adult earaches.)

When an earache presents, the pain may be coming from the ear itself - for example from local inflammation - the pressure between the middle ear and outside air, or a combination of these (Kaylie 2019).

Alternatively, earache can be a result of referred pain, which is an issue in a nearby area that shares the same nerves to the brain as the ear (Kaylie 2019).

The most common reason for ear-related earache pain is a blockage of the passageway between the middle ear and back of the throat. This passage is known as the Eustachian tube (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

Most earaches resolve within a few days. Even in the case of prolonged ear infections, the prognosis is usually positive (Havard Health Publishing 2019).

Earaches may be caused by an infection or any of the following:

  • Injury;
  • Inflammation or infection within the ear canal - often referred to as ‘swimmer’s ear’;
  • Infection in the external ear and ear lobe ‘cellulitis’;
  • Allergies or irritation;
  • Pain caused by nerve irritation in the ear ‘neuralgia’;
  • An abrupt change in air pressure;
  • An object stuck in the ear;
  • Ear wax build-up;
  • Loud noises;
  • Referred pain, such as from a throat infection;
  • Issues with the jaw; and
  • Dental problems such as an abscess.

(Healthdirect 2017; Harvard Health Publishing 2019)

earache
Diagram of the inner, middle, and outer ear.

Causes of Earache

In the case of acute pain (pain that lasts for less than two weeks), the most common causes are:

  • A middle ear infection;
  • An external ear infection; and
  • A sudden pressure change.

(Kaylie 2019)

Clear or bloody fluid accompanied by severe ear pain may signal a ruptured eardrum. A ruptured eardrum is a hole or perforation in the membrane that separates the inner or outer ear (Miller 2017).

If the eardrum ruptures because of a middle ear infection, the pain often decreases because the pressure is reduced (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

A ruptured eardrum can be caused by injury to the neck and head area, changes in air or water pressure (for example, from diving) inner ear infections, and less likely, as a result of very loud noises (Miller 2017).

If pain is chronic and is accompanied by a ringing or buzzing sound, it may be tinnitus.

earache
When an earache presents, the pain may be coming from the ear itself, the pressure between the middle ear and outside air, or a combination of these.

Earache Symptoms

Earache is most commonly associated with a feeling of obstruction or blockage in the ear. It may begin gradually or suddenly and the pain may feel very intense (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

Often an earache will clear up after a few days without intervention. If it doesn’t however, it is wise to see a general practitioner (GP).

A person should be advised to seek help if they:

  • Notice that the pain is getting worse;
  • Are feeling generally unwell;
  • Are experiencing hearing loss or muffled hearing;
  • Are experiencing fevers;
  • Are experiencing discharge;
  • Are concerned.

(Healthdirect 2017; Harvard Health Publishing 2019; Southern Cross Medical Library 2019)

earache
For people prone to ear pain, loud music, concerts, and environmental noise (such a construction sites) should be avoided.

Earache Diagnosis

If the earache is severe and/or if other symptoms are present, it’s recommended that the person seeks out advice from a health professional.

Usually, a general practitioner (GP) will examine the ears, nose and throat of a person with an earache. This will be carried out with an otoscope to look inside ears and investigate redness and fluid buildup. The GP may also test for any hearing loss (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

Earache Treatment

If pain is the result of a blocked Eustachian tube, a decongestant or antihistamine may help to relieve this (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

Until the underlying problem is treated or clears up, pain-relief medicines will usually be enough to control the pain of earache (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

Non-medicinal methods of easing the pain include holding a warm cloth or heat pack to the ear or covering ears in cold weather or rainy conditions (Healthdirect 2017).

If symptoms last for more than two to three days, antibiotics may be recommended in some cases (Harvard Health Publishing 2019).

If you are concerned or believe medication is required for the earache please seek information from a doctor and/or pharmacist.

earache
Usually, a general practitioner (GP) will examine the ears, nose and throat of a person with an earache using an otoscope.

Earache Prevention

The following is advised for preventing earaches:

  • Avoid allergy triggers as they may irritate sinuses.
  • For people prone to ear pain, loud music, concerts, and environmental noise (such a construction sites) should be avoided. If these scenarios cannot be avoided, earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones should be worn.
  • Earplugs and a swimming cap should be worn while swimming, and ears should be properly dried after any immersion in water.
  • Keep all foreign objects out of the ear.

(Miller 2017)

Multiple Choice Questions

Q1. True or false: Intense ear pain accompanied by clear or bloody fluid may signal a ruptured eardrum.

  1. True
  2. False

Q2. Which of the following is not a listed symptom of an earache?

  1. Hearing loss.
  2. Discharge
  3. Fevers
  4. Mood swings.

Q3. Often an earache will…?

  1. Clear up on its own in a few days.
  2. Clear up on its own in a few weeks.
  3. Require antibiotics immediately.
  4. Require surgery.
References

(Answers: a, d, a)

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