What Causes an Earache?

Ear pain
Child with Earache. Getty Images/ Narcisa

There are many causes of an earache. This article talks about some of the common reason you or your child might be suffering from ear pain. If you are unsure what is causing your earache and if ear pain doesn't subside in a couple days it's always best to see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Middle Ear Infections

Earaches are often caused by a middle ear infection, especially in small children.

It may be difficult to tell if a small child's earache is a result of an ear infection. While it is more common for a middle ear infection to be present in a child some people do develop adult ear infections. Middle ear infections are usually caused when the auditory tube doesn't drain properly. Mucous and other debris trapped inside the auditory tube and cut off from proper air flow creates an environment for germs to grow and thrive in. Middle ear infections are often preceded by the common cold. Symptoms of a middle ear infection may include:

  • ear pain (most common symptom)
  • infants and small children may pull or tug at their ears
  • pain might get worse at night or first thing in the morning after lying down for a period of time
  • pressure in the ears
  • hearing loss
  • fever
  • dizziness or loss of balance
  • drainage from the ears

Swimmer's Ear

This condition is aptly named because it sometimes occurs in swimmers.

It is caused when water that has bacteria or other germs in it becomes trapped in the outer part of the ear. Characteristics of this infection include a red outer ear which may be dry and flaky. The ear might also itch and be painful. Swimmer's ear is commonly treated with antibiotic ear drops. If left untreated it can lead to a more serious condition called malignant otitis externa.

Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ear is a fairly common condition that can be present with or without an earache. In fact, fluid in the ear often goes undiagnosed (particularly in small children) because it has no symptoms at all. However, in some people the condition can be very symptomatic causing discomfort and even developmental delays (in kids). Fluid in the ear can be caused by an ear infection or a blockage of the auditory tube. It's often the result of a cold virus or allergies. In many small children it occurs because of the anatomy of their small auditory tubes. It sometimes has to be treated with the surgical placement of ear tubes (also called ventilation tubes).

Barotrauma

This earache is caused by drastic changes in the atmospheric pressure, such as occurs when flying in an airplane or driving up a steep hill. You may experience severe pressure in your ears and they may feel like they need to "pop". This condition is also fairly common among scuba divers and sometimes results in a ruptured ear drum.

Ruptured Eardrum

This condition can be caused by any of the above conditions and also as a result of very loud noise such as a gunshot. Symptoms of an eardrum may include:

  • severe pain, which may suddenly subside
  • ear drainage
  • sudden hearing loss
  • dizziness

A ruptured ear drum will usually heal on it's own but in severe cases may need to be surgically repaired.

Perichondritis

Perichondritis is a less common cause of an earache which usually occurs as a result of trauma to the cartilage of the ear. It can be a result of ear piercing or trauma from contact sports such as boxing. There is also an autoimmune condition called relapsing polychondritis where the immune system attacks the cartilage of the ear.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ."Swimmer's Ear" (Otitis Externa). Accessed May 31, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/disease/swimmers_ear.html

MedlinePlus. Ear Infections. Accessed: May 31, 2015 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/earinfections.html

Medline Plus. Otitis Media with Effusion. Accessed: May 31, 2015 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007010.htm

Medline Plus. Perichondritis. Accessed: January 18, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001253.htm

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