What Causes Ear Aches? Everything You Should Know!

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That severe pain you’re experiencing in your ear may have some common and uncommon causes. Although children experience frequent ear pain, ear aches are quite common in adults too.

So, what causes ear aches?

Ear pain that comes and goes or is persistent can be severe, dull, or burning. It may affect either one or both ears. Fever and temporary hearing loss are some symptoms of an ear infection. Ear infections in young children sometimes make them cranky and agitated.

Children have ear pain from infections more frequently than adults. By the time they are three, at least five out of every six kids have experienced an ear infection, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Parents frequently bring their children to the doctor’s office for ear infections. Children have more than 500,000 ear tube procedures annually. These operations are typically performed on children 3 years old or younger.

By the end of this article, you’ll know more about what causes ear aches.

Signs and Symptoms

Injuries or ear infections are usually what cause ear aches.

Adult symptoms include:

  • Ear pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Fluid leakage from the ears

Additional symptoms, such as these, are frequently present in children:

  • Fever
  • The feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Pulling or tugging at the ear
  • Crying or being irritated more often than usual
  • Headache
  • Appetite loss

Causes and Risk Factors

Ear infections are a frequent source of ear pain. Some other factors that contribute to what causes ear aches include allergies, sinus infections, tooth infections, earwax buildup, changes in altitude, and temporomandibular joint syndrome.

Some factors leading to ear aches include:

Air pressure: The outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear make up your ear’s three major structural components. The eustachian tube drains fluid, connects the middle of the ear to the neck and rear of the nasal cavity, and is frequently the source of ear pain. Air and fluid cannot travel through a blocked eustachian tube, which results in pressure buildup and discomfort, and that might be what causes ear aches.

what causes ear aches
By RyanMcGuire/Pixabay Copyright 2022

In most cases, your ear manages to maintain equal pressure on both sides of your eardrum. When you swallow, you can experience a small pop. Fast adjustments, though, can tip the balance, like when you’re in an elevator or an airplane.

Swimmer’s ear: Often referred to as otitis externa (infection of the outer ear), can be brought on by dirty water that becomes trapped in the outer ear canal after swimming, providing the perfect environment for bacteria that can bring about illness.

You most likely have this outer ear infection if your ear hurts when you tug on your earlobe or press on the little flap that closes it. When bacteria grow in stagnant water in your ear canal, you get it. Your ear may get bloated, red, itchy, or begin to ooze pus.

Earwax: Wax is constantly produced and eliminated from your ears. When the procedure is unsuccessful, your canal becomes blocked, and the gunk accumulates and hardens. Your physician will refer to this as impacted wax. It can be painful at times.

Avoid attempting to remove wax with cotton swabs or other items. You’ll merely push it farther into your ear canal, increasing the likelihood that it will get impacted. Your ear could be itchy and painful, produce mucus, or get infected. You might possibly experience temporary hearing loss.

Infection in the Middle Ear: Your middle ear tubes may become blocked by a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection. Acute otitis media is the term your doctor will use when fluid accumulates and becomes infected. The most frequent reason for earache is this.

Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics if they believe a bacterial infection is at blame. If not, they might suggest a steroid nasal spray and over-the-counter antihistamines. Let them know if your pain doesn’t go away or comes back. A middle ear infection that is left untreated may spread or result in hearing loss.

Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome: Your jawbone and skull are joined together by the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which functions as a sliding hinge. On either side of your jaw, there is a joint. TMJ disorders, sometimes known as TMDs, include TMJ problems, which can hurt your jaw joint and the muscles that move it.

It can be challenging to pinpoint the precise reason someone has a TMJ condition, which might be what causes ear aches. Genetics, arthritis, or a jaw injury could all contribute to your pain. Although many people routinely clench or grind their teeth without developing TMJ issues, some people who experience jaw pain also tend to do so. This condition is known as bruxism.

Throat Infection: When you have a sore throat and difficulty swallowing, your earache may be a sign of a throat infection like tonsillitis or quinsy, an abscess on one side of your throat that can occasionally make it exceedingly difficult to swallow even water.

Ear canal irritation from cotton-tipped swabs, Soap, or shampoo remaining in the ear.

Among kids, fluid accumulation in the tubes in the middle ear leads to middle ear infections, also known as otitis media. The fluid may then contract a virus or bacteria.

Because of their smaller and straighter eustachian tubes, which make it more difficult for fluid to drain out, children are more susceptible than adults to having ear infections. Additionally, their immune systems are developing, so they are more prone to illnesses.

How to Ease Ear Pain?

How do we ease that pain from what causes ear aches? The following pointers might be able to help.

  • For the duration of the flight, consume plenty of water or other non-caffeinated beverages. Drinking lots of fluids is crucial. Swallowing is encouraged, which allows the Eustachian tubes to open.
  • Additionally, the dryness of airline air causes nasal mucus to thicken, increasing the risk of clogged Eustachian tubes.
  • If you are aware that your child experiences ear pain when flying, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen approximately a half hour before takeoff or landing.
  • Eat chew gum or hard candy.
  • Use a bottle or pacifier, or breastfeed the child. When feeding your infant from a bottle, make sure they are sitting up in an upright position/
  • Regularly yawn.
  • Warm or cold compresses or a cold wet washcloth applied on the outer ear and over-the-counter painkillers can help relieve the pain if your ear pain is minor.

How to Prevent Ear Infections?

To prevent infections that result from what causes ear aches, consider doing the following:

  • Avoid smoking around kids. The most common cause of childhood ear infections is secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid putting things in your ears or your child’s ears to prevent outer ear infections.
  • After showering or swimming, thoroughly dry your ears.
  • Avoid allergy triggers which may lead to being what causes ear aches. Avoid things that could cause allergies.
  • Consider using a steroid nasal spray to lessen ear infections. However, over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines cannot stop ear infections.
  • Your ears may suffer and develop painful ear infections due to upper respiratory infections. Wash your hands frequently to lower your chance of contracting diseases, especially if you often contact your nose, eyes, or mouth. Additionally, you should stay away from sick people.

What to Do if the Pain Doesn’t Go Away?

What must be done if we cannot determine what causes ear aches? Seek medical assistance if you or your kid develops a fever that lasts more than a few days and is 104°F (40°C) or higher. A fever of more than 101°F (38°C) in a newborn requires prompt medical attention.

If you experience significant discomfort that ends unexpectedly, you should contact a doctor immediately. This can be a symptom of an eardrum rupture.

You should keep an eye out for other symptoms. Schedule a visit with your doctor if any of the following symptoms arise:

  • Severe ear pain
  • A strong headache
  • Swelling around the ear
  • Facial muscles drooping
  • Pus or blood flowing from the ear
  • Intense pain suddenly stops (this may be a sign of a ruptured eardrum)
ear aches
Image Source: YuriArcurs/ UnilimPhotos

Serious conditions like tumors or infections like cellulitis or shingles are some of the more common causes of ear pain. Consult your doctor immediately for treatment and rule out anything more serious if your ear pain is severe, doesn’t go away after a few days of home treatment, comes with a high fever or sore throat, or develops a new rash.

Bottom Line

Based on your symptoms and medical background, a doctor can identify ear pain and tell you what causes ear aches. They’ll probably use an otoscope, a device with a light, to examine your ears, nose, and throat to look for redness and other signs and determine what’s causing your ear pain.

A doctor can also blow air on the eardrum to test if it is moving normally while using the otoscope to diagnose an ear infection.

Most of us will have ear pain at some point in our lives. Ear pain in adults is from common causes, including barotrauma from flying or temporomandibular joint conditions. Because earaches are frequent, you could be tempted to disregard your throbbing ears.

Earaches, however, can deteriorate in severity if left untreated. Ear pain symptoms could also signify more serious underlying medical issues. Anytime you have earaches, consult your healthcare physician about your ear health.

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A lover of all things coffee, Aaliya is an aspiring engineer in the field of Electronics and is currently in search of the perfect skin care routine. She spends most of her time researching health related content and contributing articles on the same.
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