Both children and adults can experience ear ache at any time. It can be painful and uncomfortable and may significantly disrupt your daily life until you recover, especially if accompanied by other symptoms, such as a fever. For most people an ear ache won’t be a long-term problem or one that requires medical treatment or hospitalisation. If you are suffering from an ear ache then there are some steps you can take to start managing it.
What is ear ache?
It’s a pain in the ear that could be the result of issues with the ear itself or with the structure of the ear. Ear ache can be a constant pain or it may be sporadic. It may be a dull pain that feels more like an ache or it could be sharp and burning. Pain is usually the first, and most obvious, symptom of ear ache. However, adults can also suffer from feeling dizzy, hearing loss, experiencing headaches, being - or feeling - sick, a fever and ear drainage. In children, symptoms can also include crying and irritability, as well as pulling at, or scratching, the ear.
What causes ear ache?
This could be something as simple as using a cotton swab in the ear in an attempt to clean it and accidentally damaging the ear canal. This type of injury can be surprisingly painful so it’s best to avoid cotton swabs (or anything around the same size) when trying to clean wax from the ear. Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is another very common cause of ear ache in adults - this is an infection of the ear canal that is normally the result of swimming in dirty water but can also be triggered by overly enthusiastic cotton swab use. Antibiotic drops can be used to treat this quickly, which is especially important for anyone with diabetes for whom the condition can spread quickly and be life threatening. Other causes of ear ache include:
- Referred pain from the jaw, for example if you have been grinding your teeth at night.
- Eustachian tube dysfunction, which affects the tubes that run between your middle ears and your upper throat
- An inflammation of the outer ear (chondritis)
- A throat infection
- Throat cancer
Managing your ear ache
You can manage something like a simple ear ache at home with rest and over-the-counter painkillers. If you are concerned about your ear ache, or it’s getting a lot worse or is accompanied by other serious symptoms, then you should seek help from an ENT specialist. This will usually involve an examination of your ear to look for redness, fluid behind the eardrum and to see if the eardrum moves, all of which are signs of infection. You may also need to have tests on your hearing and can be prescribed medication, such as antibiotics for an infection or decongestant if you have a cold.
Experiencing ear ache is usually painful but temporary. If you have any concerns, severe symptoms or your ear ache simply won’t go away then a visit to an ENT specialist can be reassuring and help to improve your condition.