Earache

Definition

An earache is a sharp, dull, or burning pain in one or both ears. The pain may last a short time or be ongoing. Related conditions include:

Alternative Names

Otalgia; Pain - ear; Ear pain

Considerations

The symptoms of an ear infection may include:

Many children will have minor hearing loss during or right after an ear infection. Most of the time, the problem goes away. Lasting hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number of infections.

Causes

The eustachian tube runs from the middle part of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid that is made in the middle ear. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. This may lead to pressure behind the eardrum or an ear infection.

Ear pain in adults is less likely to be from an ear infection. Pain that you feel in the ear may be coming from another place, such as your teeth, the joint in your jaw (temporomandibular joint), or your throat. This is called "referred" pain.

Causes of ear pain may include:

Ear pain in a child or infant may be due to infection. Other causes may include:

Home Care

The following steps may help an earache:

For ear pain caused by a change of altitude, such as on an airplane:

The following steps can help prevent earaches:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your health care provider if:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The provider will do a physical exam and look at the ear, nose, and throat areas.

Pain, tenderness, or redness of the mastoid bone behind the ear on the skull is often a sign of a serious infection.

References

Earwood JS, Rogers TS, Rathjen NA. Ear pain: diagnosing common and uncommon causes. Am Fam Physician. 2018;97(1):20-27. PMID: 29365233 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29365233/.

Haddad J, Dodhia SN. General considerations in evaluation of the ear. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 654.

Pelton SI. Otitis externa, otitis media, and mastoiditis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 61.

Player B. Earache. In: Kliegman RM, Toth H, Bordini BJ, Basel D, eds. Nelson Pediatric Symptom-Based Diagnosis. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2023:chap 5.


Review Date: 1/24/2023
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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