Why Does My Ear Hurt?

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Earaches can be at the least, a mildly irritating and dull ache, and at worst, an acutely painful affliction. Thankfully, generally speaking, earaches are not cause for serious worry and can often be rectified and alleviated at home without seeking a medical professional’s care. 

Viral infections are the most common causes of earache in children, while foreign objects such as Q-tips are the most common cause of infection amongst adults. However, just because you are experiencing ear pain doesn’t mean you have an infection. Below are listed the most common causes for ear pain, along with a list of at-home remedies that may provide relief. 

Over-the-counter remedies and other at-home care may alleviate the pain in the ear without the need for a medical professional. However, suppose ear pain becomes worse or doesn’t go away within a few days. In that case, you’ll likely need to consult a doctor or other medical professional to diagnose the cause of ear pain. 

Related: Having pain in throat on one side when swallowing? Here’s what you need to know – GuruMD

Most Common Causes 

Earaches are relatively common in both children and adults, though they aren’t generally much more severe than a buildup of ear wax or a minor infection. The most common causes of ear pain or earaches are: 

  • Ear Infection

Otitis, an infection in the inner or outer ear, is one of the most common earache causes. An inner ear infection is usually a viral cause, while an outer ear infection affects the ear canal and usually is caused by direct irritation of the ear canal from water or a foreign object such as a Q-tip. 

Q-tips in a bathroom.


Sinus infection

A sinus infection can cause severe pain in the ear and surrounding muscles and joints. Sinus infections may be viral or bacterial and are typically treated by doctor-prescribed antibiotics. 

  • Wax Buildup

Earwax should naturally drain from your ears (generally while sleeping), but sometimes the ear canal can become so built-up with wax and dirt or dust that it won’t drain from the ear. Doctors refer to this as ‘impacted’ earwax and typically use warm water squirted into the ear canal to flush the impacted wax. 

Do not use cotton swabs or q-tips (or anything else) to try to dig the wax out. It will only push the wax further into the ear canal, possibly causing more damage and likely cause more inflammation. Over-the-counter kits may flush the wax. If they don’t, a medical professional will be able to remove the impacted wax. 

Contact GuruMD today to speak to a doctor about your ear pain. 

Related: Ear and Jaw Pain: 8 Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments (healthline.com)

  • Referred Pain

Referred pain occurs when the face and neck’s nerves are affected by a condition, and their proximity to the inner ear causes the ear also to hurt. An earache with a sore throat may be a sign of tonsillitis or pharyngitis, and it is best to see a doctor if you experience these dual symptoms. 

A dental issue may also be the culprit, for the same reason that the nerves are so close to the inner ear. 

  • Air or Water Pressure

The inner ear works to equalize pressure on either side of the eardrum. Quick changes to pressure, such as being in an elevator to the top of the Empire State building or an airplane taking off or landing, can throw the pressure balance off, resulting in minor discomfort or ear pain. Chewing gum or blowing air out through your nose while it’s pinched shut typically works to equalize the pressure. 

This pressure may also occur when swimming or diving. Blowing out through your nose while it is pinched shut typically helps alleviate this, along with allowing water to drain from the ear once out of the water. 

  • Allergic Reaction

Allergies, whether seasonal or chronic, may cause pressure and pain similar to a sinus infection. If over-the-counter allergy medicine doesn’t relieve pain or irritation, you may need to consult a medical professional. 

  • Chronic Conditions 

Conditions like Temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which affects the joints connecting the jawbone to the skull (the “hinge”), may cause ear pain. Symptoms include clicking or popping in the ear when moving the jaw, the jaw locking when opening, or difficulty opening the mouth fully

Ear pain may also be an indication of arthritis or grinding your teeth during sleep. 

  • Skin Infections 

Swimmer’s ear is a common skin infection resulting from excessive water exposure leading to bacteria becoming trapped in the ear canal. Symptoms include a feeling of “fullness” in the ear, limited hearing, itching, and sometimes fever. 

Related: Why Does My Ear Hurt? 7 Possible Causes of Ear Pain (webmd.com)

At-Home Treatment

  • OTC Medications 

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can reduce the pain and inflammation of an earache. Popular NSAIDs are ibuprofen, aspirin, and products containing acetaminophen. 

  • Heating Pad 

An electric heating pad can help reduce inflammation and pain in the ear and surrounding muscles. 

  •  Cold Pack

A cold pack or ice wrapped in a washcloth or light towel may ease ear pain. Important: Never place ice directly on the skin. 

  •  Ear Drops

Over-the-counter ear drops may provide relief from ear pain but should not be used as a substitute for doctor-prescribed ear drops. 

  •  Sucking on Hard Candy/Cough Drop 

Sucking on a piece of hard candy or a cough drop can help reduce pressure in the Eustachian tubes, providing relief in some cases. 

  •  Massaging the Ear and Jaw

Massaging the affected ear and surrounding muscles may provide relief from pain radiating from the ear through the jaw and/or teeth. 

  • Onions or Garlic (Yes, Really)

Garlic and onions have been used in folk medicine for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Researchers have found that garlic and onions have antimicrobial properties that fight infection. However, they should not be used as a substitute for doctor-prescribed antibiotics. 

Consuming garlic (a clove a day) may help speed up relief when combined with an antibiotic regimen

You can also cook a few cloves of garlic in mustard or sesame oil until brown, strain, and apply a drop to each affected ear. Onion ear drops can be made by microwaving an onion for one to two minutes, strain the liquid, and apply drops to affected ears, allowing the fluid to drain out of the ear

Medical Treatment 

Doctor in face mask examines a patient.


If at-home treatments don’t provide relief or pain becomes severe, it is important to see a medical professional to treat the cause of your earache. Failure to treat issues with the ear may result in hearing loss or serious infection. 

The knowledgeable team of doctors and medical professionals at GuruMD may be able to help with your ear pain. Contact them online today to skip the drive, the waiting room, and even receive prescriptions if necessary. 

Sources

Why Does My Ear Hurt? 7 Possible Causes of Ear Pain (webmd.com)

Nine effective home remedies for earache (medicalnewstoday.com)

Ear and Jaw Pain: 8 Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments (healthline.com)

Sharp pain in the ear: Causes, symptoms, and treatments (medicalnewstoday.com)

What Is Ear Pain? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention | Everyday Health