There’s nothing pleasant about experiencing pain in your ear, or in both ears. Medically known as “otalgia,” ear pain can be fleeting or long-lasting, and because it can occur for a variety of reasons, treatment tactics vary.
Read on to discover some of the most common reasons people experience ear pain—along with details on why kids are so prone to ear infections, treatment options, and more.
The basics of ear pain
That’s a question with many potential answers. First, it helps to know that doctors think of ear pain in two categories:
- Primary pain caused by a problem in the ear itself
- Secondary pain that is felt in your ear but the problem is actually elsewhere in your body (referred pain)
When the problem is within your ear, the ear exam will be abnormal, often showing obvious anatomical changes, such as a swollen ear drum seen via tympanometry. That’s not the case for referred ear pain, explains ear, nose and throat specialist Mark Nichols, MD, with Houston ENT & Allergy Clinic.
Here are some of the more common reasons for experiencing ear pain, in both categories:
Pain due to a problem within the ear (primary otalgia)
1. Swimmer’s ear
Swimmer’s ear, medically known as otitis externa, is an “infection of the tissues of the ear canal,” Dr. Nichols says. One cue that it might be what you’re experiencing: It’ll feel tender when you press on the ear canal, he says.
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include pain, swelling and purulent drainage, or pus draining out of the ear canal, notes Karen Hoffmann, MD, an ENT with Piedmont Ear, Nose, Throat & Related Allergy in Georgia. The ear can also feel itchy.
Treatment options for otitis externa: Typically, your doctor will prescribe an ear drop with antibiotics for swimmer’s ear, Dr. Nichols says. It’s also important to keep your ear dry, he adds. If the infection is painful, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
2. Middle ear infection
A middle ear infection—aka otitis media—is the other main cause of non-referred ear pain, Dr. Nichols says. This can happen after a respiratory infection, cold, or sinus infection, he says.
A majority—75 percent—of children have an ear infection by age 3, and while adults can also get middle ear infections, it’s not as common, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
This type of infection can lead to pain, along with hearing loss and fluid draining from the ear—in children, other symptoms include fussiness, loss of appetite, fever, and difficulty sleeping.