Ear pain is any pain that occurs in any part of the inner, middle, or outer ear. This pain can be by itself or associated with other symptoms.
What is going on in the body?
Ear pain can range from mild discomfort or a feeling of fullness to severe, intense pain. Often ear pain results from conditions of the outer or middle ear. Ear pain usually results from conditions that may be caused by infection, trauma, or blockage of the ear.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
There are many possible causes of ear pain, including:
trauma to the ear, including damage caused by use of cotton swabs
sudden changes in pressure, such as changes in altitude when flying
blockage of the ear canal from earwax or foreign object
otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear
acute otitis media, or an infection of the inner ear
mastoiditis, which is a serious bacterial infection of the bone behind the ear
allergic reactions and allergies
acute sinusitis or chronic sinusitis
sore throat with referred pain to the ears
Meniere’s disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear
tumors of the ear, which may be cancerous or benign
temporomandibular joint syndrome
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
When a person complains of ear pain, the healthcare provider will as questions, such as:
when the pain started
whether the pain is constant
whether it is getting worse, better, or staying the same
whether anything decreases the pain or make the ear pain worse
if there any ringing in the ear
if a change in position increases pain
if there any other symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, headache, itching, or pain in other areas of the face, such as the sinuses or jaw
if there is drainage from the ear and, if so, the color and consistency
if there is any hearing impairment
if he or she has a feeling of dizziness or vertigo, a sensation that the room is spinning around
what medications, drugs, or herbs does the person take, if any
what other medical problems does the person have, if any
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the condition diagnosed?
A healthcare provider will look in the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. Based on the medical history and exam, further hearing tests may be needed. Blood tests may be ordered if an infection is suspected. Blood cultures, x-rays, and cranial CT scans may be done.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Protecting the ear from such conditions as trauma and loud noises may decrease the risk of ear pain. Seeking early care for upper respiratory infections may decrease the risk of ear infection. When swimming, a person should avoid putting his or her head under water, or wear earplugs to avoid water from getting into the ear canal. A person should not insert a cotton swab into the ear canal. Many causes cannot be prevented.
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Ear pain from an injury may heal without any long-term effects. Some injuries or infections may lead to permanent hearing impairment or chronic pain. A person who has a tumor in his or her ear may require surgery and medications over a long time.
What are the risks to others?
Ear pain itself is not contagious and poses no risk to others. If the pain is caused by an infection such as strep throat, that infection may be contagious.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the condition?
Heat may be recommended for some causes of ear pain. Eardrops may be prescribed to relieve pain and treat swimmer’s ear. Antibiotics are used to middle ear infections. Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be used to decrease the pain. Those with cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Surgery may be needed for those who have damage to their ear from an injury or recurrent infections.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects to treatment will depend on the treatment used. There may be stomach upset or allergic reactions to antibiotics or ibuprofen. Treatments that require surgery pose a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person with minor ear pain and no other conditions may heal completely and not need further treatment. If a person has surgery, he or she may need to take it easy for a few days to a few weeks and need follow up care. Some people may need hearing aids to improve their hearing or may need to learn sign language if hearing is impaired.
How is the condition monitored?
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.