People assume that earache occurs in kids and children, but let me tell you that ear pain is the most common reason people of all ages visit an ENT doctor. Ear pain is different for each person. For some, the pain can range from mild to sharp while for some it can be constant or comes in waves. (Also Read: Common Ear Problems in Children)
Let’s see in detail the causes of ear pain in adults.
Otitis media (OM)
This is a type of infection that occurs in the middle ear which is the area behind the eardrum. Otitis media is painful as the middle ear becomes inflamed and infected.
There is a tube inside the ear that runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat, which is known as the Eustachian tube. When this tube becomes swollen due to any allergies, cold, smoking or any other reason, it blocks the fluid in the middle ear. When there is an infection in the trapped fluid, an otitis media occurs. Other symptoms include- headache, drainage of fluid from the ear, vomiting, diarrhea, hearing loss. (Also Read: 3 Most Common Types of Middle Ear Infections (Otitis Media) )
Otitis media with effusion (OME)
This is a little different from otitis media. In this condition, fluid from the eustachian tube drains into the back of the throat but without any infection. There is a collection of fluid without inflammation or infection.
Otitis media with effusion can occur after OM. Furthermore, there are other causes too such as a change in air/water pressure or allergy. The difference between OM and OME lies in the fact that OM causes intense pain while the pain associated with OM with effusion is mild.
Swimmer’s ear is a common ear infection that affects swimmers. Hence, the name. This is an ear infection that occurs in the outer ear canal. Therefore, it is also known as External Otitis. Generally, it is caused by bacteria found in water but it can also occur due to viruses or fungus. Some other symptoms to look out for are- itchiness in the ear, severe pain, difficulty in hearing, draining of fluid or pus from the ear.
Blockage due to earwax
Earwax prevents germs and dust particles from entering the ear. If there is an overproduction of earwax or it gets pushed back too deep into the ear canal while cleaning with ear swabs, a person may experience ear pain. Therefore, make sure that you use cotton swabs carefully while cleaning the ear. There can be other symptoms such as difficulty in hearing or ringing in the ears. (Also Read: What does Ear Wax Indicate for Your Health? )
Blockage due to Eustachian tube
As explained above, the eustachian tube that connects the throat and the middle ear helps to regulate pressure as well as drains excess fluid from the middle ear. Sometimes the tube gets blocked due to an allergy, infection, altitude change that results in blockage of the tubes. This is the reason the tube is unable to drain the excess fluid that causes symptoms such as dizziness, hearing loss, etc.
Skin problems in the ear
A person can experience pain in the ear if there is any skin problem. Some of them are explained below-
Dermatitis- As discussed in other blogs, dermatitis can result in itching, flaking or swelling of the ear canal that can be due to an allergic or another underlying skin condition.
Preauricular cellulitis- A person suffering from this condition experience a redness, hotness and tenderness in the ear other than an earache.
Herpes zoster oticus- Earache caused due to this condition can be intense. The person also develops rashes that are filled with fluid. In extreme cases, the person may experience facial paralysis.
This is a disease that occurs in the inner ear. In Meniere’s disease, the flow of fluids in the inner ear gets disrupted. There is no specific reason that can explain why this occurs. Some of the symptoms that people experience are ringing in the ears, loss in hearing as well as loss of balance. People also complain about attacks of a spinning sensation. The age group 20-50 is at a greater risk of suffering from this disease than other age groups.
The perichondrium is the skin and the tissue around the cartilage (thick tissue that shapes the nose and outer ear). In simple terms, perichondritis is an infection of the perichondrium. This infection is generally caused by bacteria. Some factors that increase the risk of perichondritis include injury to the ear, piercings or contact sports. Apart from painful red ear being an evident symptom, other symptoms to look out for are fever or drainage from the wound.
Apart from experiencing nasal congestion or heaviness around the face, people suffering from sinusitis often add that they are having an earache too. This common condition affects the sinuses which are hollow spaces located behind the nose, between the eyes, within the cheekbones and lower forehead. (Also Read: 5 Myths Debunked About Sinusitis)
Sometimes problems in the tooth such as a cracked tooth, decaying of the tooth or abscess can also result in earache. Eating something hot or cold or taking a bite or even chewing can also trigger the pain.
Temporomandibular Joint disorder
What we commonly refer to as the ‘hinge’ of the jaw is known as the Temporomandibular joint. This joint sits directly under the ear. The joint connects the lower jaw to the temporal bone of the skull. A disorder in the joint occurs when there is the erosion of the bone or overuse of the surrounding muscles. As the joint is near, any disorder of the joint results in a constant and dull joint pain that becomes worse while opening/closing the mouth.
When any infection in the ear is left untreated, it can spread to the mastoid bone and can cause mastoiditis. The mastoid bone is the one that is hard and sits behind and under the ear. There are other factors also that can cause mastoiditis such as abnormal cell growth or ear polyps. Other symptoms are pus oozing out of the ear, fever, bad smell from the ears, redness, etc. Although a rare condition, it can turn out to be fatal.
We all commonly know this condition as ‘sore throat’. Pharyngitis is the condition in which the pharynx inflames resulting in scratchy throat or difficulty in swallowing. The most common reason for inflammation is bacterial/viral infection. In severe cases, due to inflammation, the pain can spread to the ear. You can also cue this medical condition naturally.
The eardrum is the membrane that divides the middle and outer ear. The membrane helps us to hear when sound waves enter the ear. A ruptured eardrum (tympanic membrane perforation) is a hole or tear in the thin tissue that separates your ear canal from your middle ear (eardrum). The main symptom of the rupturing of this membrane is an earache. The pain can be severe in some cases and persist throughout the day. The person may also experience constant buzzing in the ears or dizziness. The only treatment option for a ruptured eardrum is tympanoplasty.
Tumor and Giant cell arteritis
A symptom of ear cancer, tumors can also contribute to an earache. The tumor can develop on the hearing nerves or auditory nerves that connect the inner ear to the inner brain. This can lead to loss of hearing as well as an imbalance in the body.
There is a large artery located in the neck, also known as external carotid surgery. Sometimes, the artery can get inflamed and can cause pain in the ear canal or outer ear. People can also have pain in the temple or forehead region along with fever, fatigue or loss of appetite.
Treatment for Earache
Self-care at home-
Some simple DIY hacks can help a lot in getting relief from ear pain. Some of them are-
- Apply warm compress against the ear or sinuses.
- Take a hot shower or bath to decongest.
- Keep yourself hydrated. (Also Read: Know the Do’s and Don’ts to Clean your Ears )
- Yawn or chew gum to ‘pop’ your ears.
There are medical treatment options if the earache is severe and none of the above tips are proving to be effective. You can go for ear flushing, medications such as ear drops, antibiotics, etc. Earache is actually unpleasant and delaying its diagnosis is not prudent. Get yourself checked by an ENT doctor and lead a safe and healthy life.