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Pain in the ears is a common childhood complaint, but it can affect people of any age. The inner ear is full of small, delicate structures, and damage or infections in any part of it can cause pain.

Ongoing ear pain may come and go, be sharp or throbbing, depending on the cause. Most ear pain is caused by a relatively simple infection or injury, but in some cases, it points to a chronic illness.

Blocked Ears

Wax protects the ear canal from infection and injury, but too much ear wax can cause problems, including pain, fullness, muffled hearing, or ringing in the ear.

Using q-tips can push wax deeper into the ear and make the problem worse. Over-the-counter ear wax softeners might help, or a doctor could pull out the impacted wax with gentle suction.

doctor examining patient's ear

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Ear Injury

Ear trauma is typically caused by pressure or sound. Nearby loud noises like a scream, gunshot, or machinery can damage the ear drum. Uneven pressure between the inner ear and the outside world can also cause pain.

People might experience this on an airplane, during or after scuba diving, or while high in the mountains. Yawning or swallowing can help. Severe ear trauma may call for steroids to help with healing and antibiotics to treat or prevent an infection.

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Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

The Eustachian tubes are thin openings that connect the middle ear and sinus cavity. They equalize air pressure and drain fluid away from the inner ear.

When this tube becomes blocked due to fluid buildup, allergies, or infection, it can cause pressure and sharp ear pain. Decongestants or antihistamines may help.

illustration of the inner ear showing eustachian tube

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Otitis Media

Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear, just behind the ear drum. It can develop after a cold, allergic reaction, or if the Eustachian tubes are blocked and fluids can't drain properly.

Symptoms include pain, ringing, fullness, dizziness, and difficulty hearing. Blood, pus, or clear fluid leaking from the ear is a sign to see a doctor, as the discharge could be the result of a ruptured ear drum.

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Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear refers to an infection of the outer ear canal, and it isn't always caused by water. People who spend time swimming are more vulnerable to this infection, but it can also be caused by hearing aids, using cotton swabs inside the ear, or overusing earbud-style listening devices.

Anything that allows a fungus or bacteria to grow in the outer ear canal can lead to itching, pain, and redness. Extreme infections can cause fever and swollen lymph nodes. They're usually treated with antifungal medication or antibiotics.

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Sinus Infection

Fluids and swelling in the sinuses can put pressure on the inner ear. Stuffiness and sneezing, fatigue, headache, fever, coughing, and pain in the ears and face are all symptoms of a sinus infection.

Acute sinusitis is a short-term infection that typically gets better within a few weeks. Applying a warm washcloth to the face, inhaling steam, and drinking plenty of fluids can help. Chronic sinus infections can last for months and may require medication.

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Throat Infection

Earache and sore throat can both be symptoms of a cold or tonsillitis. Any infection of the throat can cause pressure to build up in the ear, and a sore throat makes it harder to swallow and balance out the pressure.

A mild sore throat can usually be treated with rest and fluids. Severe throat pain, however, could point to a strep infection or abscess that requires antibiotics.

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Dental Abscess

Sometimes ear pain comes from the jaw. A dental abscess will cause severe pain in the infected tooth which can travel to the jaw and ear.

Anyone experiencing ear and tooth pain should consult a dentist. The abscess will need to be removed and the pus drained to keep the infection from spreading.

woman with jaw and ear pain holding the side of her face

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TMJ Disorders

TMJ or temporomandibular joint disorder is another jaw issue that can lead to ear pain. Chronic illness or injury can cause pain in the joints and muscles that move the jaw, leading to an aching pain in and around the ear as well as limited jaw movement, a clicking or grinding sound while chewing, and pain while eating or talking.

Some TMJ disorders require surgery, but most can be treated with a combination of medicine, physical therapy, and at-home care.

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Meniere's Disease

Meniere's disease is a chronic inner ear condition that causes vertigo, tinnitus, intermittent deafness, and pain in one or both ears.

Symptoms often appear in adolescence or young adulthood. Some people experience days of severe dizziness, ringing in the ears, and deafness, while others may have occasional attacks that last up to an hour. There is no cure for Meniere's, but treatment can ease the symptoms.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.