Ear pain is any type of pain in any part of the inner, middle, or outer ear. This pain can occur by itself or be associated with other symptoms.
What is going on in the body?
Ear pain can range from mild discomfort or a feeling of fullness to severe, intense pain. Often ear pain results from conditions of the outer or middle ear. Ear pain usually results from conditions that may be caused by infection or trauma to the ear, or blockage of the ear canal or the eustachian tube, the tube leading from the middle ear to the back of the nasal cavity.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
There are many possible causes of ear pain, including:
trauma to the ear, including damage caused by use of cotton swabs
sudden changes in pressure, such as changes in altitude when flying
blockage of the ear canal from earwax or foreign object
otitis externa, that is, swimmer's ear
acute otitis media, an infection of the middle ear
mastoiditis, which is a serious bacterial infection of the bone behind the ear
allergic reactions and allergies
acute or chronic sinusitis
sore throat with referred pain to the ears
Meniere's disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear
tumors of the ear, which may be cancerous or benign
- temporomandibular joint syndrome
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Protecting the ear from such conditions as trauma and loud noises may decrease the risk of ear pain. Seeking early care for upper respiratory infections may decrease the risk of ear infection. When swimming, a person should avoid putting his or her head under water, or wear earplugs to prevent water from getting into the ear canal. A person should not insert a cotton swab into the ear canal. Many causes cannot be prevented.
How is the condition diagnosed?
A healthcare professional will look in the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. Based on the medical history and exam, further hearing tests may be needed. Blood tests may be ordered if an infection is suspected. Blood cultures, x-rays, and cranial CT scans may be done.
Long Term Effects
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Ear pain from an injury may heal without any long-term effects. Some injuries or infections may lead to permanent hearing impairment or chronic pain. A person who has a tumor in his or her ear or throat causing ear pain may require surgery and medications over a long period of time.
What are the risks to others?
Ear pain itself is not contagious and poses no risk to others. If the pain is caused by an infection such as strep throat, that infection may be contagious.
What are the treatments for the condition?
Heat may be recommended for some causes of ear pain. Eardrops may be prescribed to relieve pain and treat swimmer's ear. Antibiotics are used to middle ear infections. Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (i.e., Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) may be used to decrease the pain
Those with cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Surgery may be needed for those who have damage to their ear from an injury or recurrent infections.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects to treatment will depend on the treatment used. There may be stomach upset or allergic reactions to antibiotics or ibuprofen. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or reactions to anesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person with minor ear pain and no other conditions may heal completely and not need further treatment. If a person has surgery, he or she may need to rest for a few days to a few weeks and need follow up care. Some people may need hearing aids to improve their hearing or may need to learn sign language if hearing is impaired.
How is the condition monitored?
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.
Professional Guide to Signs and Symptoms, Springhouse, 1997
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.