How to know when ear pain could be the sign of something serious

You begin to notice an increased sense of pressure and pain in your ear that interrupts your day. Should you make a doctor’s appointment for your earache or go straight to the emergency department?

Earaches can happen in different parts of the ear, and they occur for a variety of reasons. Learn about the causes of ear pain and how to identify serious symptoms so you know when it’s time to seek care for your pain.

Why Does My Ear Hurt?

One common source of earache in children is ear infection. Ear infections occur more commonly in children as it is harder for fluid to properly drain out of their eustachian tubes. This can be the result of swimmer’s ear or a recent cold or upper respiratory illness. Another common cause of ear pain in children is having a foreign object lodged in their ear tube.

While ear infections can affect adults as well, it is less common for them to cause ear pain. Adult ears are exposed to more factors that may damage the eardrum through exposure to sudden loud noises, drastic changes in air pressure when in an airplane, head trauma or jaw injury. The latter causes ear pain when the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, is injured.

What causes earaches?

Earaches are often a result of:

  • Ear wax buildup or hardening.
  • A drastic change in air pressure.
  • Excessive fluid trapped in the ear tubes.
  • Upper respiratory illness or infection.
  • Sinus or eye infection.

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When to Go to the ER for Ear Pain

You should consider seeking emergency care if you experience the following symptoms with ear pain:

  • Stiff neck.
  • Severe drowsiness.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.
  • High fever.
  • A recent blow to the ear or head trauma.

When to Talk to a Doctor About Ear Pain

Your health care provider will examine your eyes, ears, nose, and throat for signs of infection or blockage, which may be the cause of your earaches. If wax buildup is the likely cause of your ear pain, your provider may remove it. Or your provider may refer you to an otolaryngologist or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to have your ears cleaned.

See your primary care physician or visit an urgent care center for less severe earache symptoms:

  • Minor hearing loss, ringing in ears, and/or dizziness.
  • Signs of infection, including a low-grade fever.
  • A sticky or bloody discharge coming from the ear.
  • Increased pain when wiggling the ear lobe.
  • Nose blowing that results in ear pain.
  • Pain that worsens or does not improve over 24 to 48 hours.

Tell your doctor if you have been exposed to loud, prolonged noise, such as a concert or industrial machinery. Also tell your doctor if an object has been inserted in your ear.

Treatment for Ear Pain

Doctors have numerous options to treat ear pain. Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may only clean the ear wax from your ears. In some cases, ear drops are required to fight infection or to help clear fluid. In more severe cases of infection, it is difficult to clean the ears without first removing the infection, therefore the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. Doctors recommend not inserting any foreign objects into your ears and only having your ears cleaned by a doctor.

Home Remedies for Minor Ear Pain

Sometimes ear pain will go away on its own and a doctor’s care is not needed. If ear pain subsides, you should continue to monitor it closely in case it recurs. You may not need to see a doctor at all if your ear pain subsides by:

  • Applying a cold compress.
  • Chewing gum.
  • Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Ear Nose and Throat

The experts in the UPMC Department of Otolaryngology treat a variety of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) conditions in both children and adults. Our team includes board-certified physicians and highly skilled speech-language pathologists and audiologists. We provide both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options. Our research and clinical trials help to advance care for our patients. Find an ENT expert near you.