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Alternative Names Return to topOtalgia; Pain - ear
Definition Return to top
An earache can be a sharp, dull, or burning pain in one or both ears. The pain may be temporary or constant.
Considerations Return to top
The symptoms of an ear infection may include:
Many children will have temporary and minor hearing loss during, and right after, an ear infection. Permanent hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number of infections.
Causes Return to top
Ear pain in children is often caused by a buildup of fluid and pressure behind the eardrum, in the area called the middle ear. The middle ear is connected to the nasal passages by a short narrow tube, the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube allows normal fluids to drain out of the middle ear, and helps keep the pressure in your ear equalized.
A cold or allergy can block the Eustachian tube due to inflammation and the buildup of secretions. This is especially likely in small children, because their Eustachian tube is shorter and more horizontal. Closing of the Eustachian tube prevents the normal flow of fluid from the middle ear. The fluid begins to build up, which can cause stuffiness, pain, hearing loss, and an ear infection.
Ear pain in adults is less likely to be from an ear infection. What you perceive as ear pain may actually be coming from another location, such as your temporomandibular joint, your teeth, throat, or other location. This is called "referred" pain.
Causes of earache:
Ear pain in a child or infant is not always from infection, however. Other causes include:
Home Care Return to top
The following steps may help an earache:
You can relieve ear pain caused by rapidly descending from high altitudes by swallowing or chewing gum. Allowing infants to suck on a bottle while the plane is descending can help.
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call your doctor if:
What to Expect at Your Office Visit Return to top
The doctor will do a physical examination, which may include examination of the:
Pain, tenderness, or redness of the mastoid often indicates a serious infection.
During the examination, the doctor will ask questions about the ear pain, such as:
Because most ear infections improve within 24 hours of receiving medical care, health care providers are less likely to prescribe antibiotics immediately. Your doctor will often wait to see if symptoms continue or worsen.
If antibiotics are prescribed, it is important to take ALL of the prescribed antibiotics on schedule.
Children with persistent or recurring ear infections may need ear tubes inserted to help the middle ear begin working properly again. Inserting ear tubes is a simple and effective surgical procedure.
Prevention Return to top
The following steps can help prevent earaches:
References Return to top
Ely JW, Hansen MR, Clark EC.Diagnosis of ear pain.Am Fam Physician. 2008 Mar 1;77(5):621-8. Review.
American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee on Management of Acute Otitis Media. Diagnosis and management of acute otitis media. Pediatrics. 2004;113(5):1451-1465.Update Date: 5/12/2009 Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.