Earache - causes and treatments

Anyone who has experienced the pain of earache will know just how uncomfortable it can be. It is often the result of an ear infection and can cause sharp pain, a dull ache or even a burning sensation.

earache causes and treatments

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If you or your child is suffering with earache, here are a few tips for recognising the symptoms, what to do and when to call your GP.

There are a number of causes for earache but the most common are as follows:
  • Glue ear - a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum which largely affects children
  • An ear infection - an infection that occurs either in the outer ear (otitis externa), the middle ear (otitis media) or inner ear (labyrinthitis)
  • Physical damage - often caused by a cotton bud or similar object
  • Earwax - when a plug of wax becomes stuck inside the ear
  • A throat infection - when a condition such as tonsillitis causes pain in the ear

Recognising the symptoms
Though there are many reasons why you may feel pain in the ear, many of the above problems will heal on their own, given time. Glue ear, for example, will usually clear up if left alone.

A common condition in young children, the exact causes of glue ear are unknown but it is thought a problem with the Eustachian tube, which drains mucus and debris from the ear, may be to blame.

The resulting build-up of fluid behind the eardrum prevent the three tiny bones within the middle ear from carrying sound vibrations, causing hearing to appear muffled.

Though it rarely requires treatment (except in severe cases), glue ear can lead to, or occur as a result of, an ear infection. And in order to clear an infection, antibiotics may be required so it is worth recognising the symptoms.

An infection in the ear canal (otitis externa) can cause redness and swelling to the outer ear, itching and irritation, tenderness when moving, swollen glands and occasionally discharge from the ear itself. Otitis media, on the other hand, can cause severe earache (caused by mucus pressing on the eardrum), a high temperature and flu-like symptoms.

Finally, an infection of the inner ear is known to cause symptoms not unlike vertigo (where the world appears to be spinning around you), dizziness, nausea, ringing in the ears and loss of balance. The majority of cases are viral labyrinthitis and this most commonly affects adults between the ages of 30 and 60, with women twice as likely to be affected as men.

If your baby or child has a temperature of 38°C or above, is irritable, restless, and pulling or rubbing their ear, it may well be a sign of an infection. Coughing, a runny nose and a lack of response to quiet sounds may also point to an infected ear.

You should call your GP if either you or your child has a fever or the earache does not improve within 24 to 48 hours.

It is possible to relieve the symptoms of earache at home - over-the-counter painkillers can ease the pain (though children under the age of 16 should not take aspirin) and a cold flannel held against the affected area may also help but it is best to avoid getting the ear wet if it is likely there is an infection.

A pharmacist may also be able to recommend eardrops but these should not be used if there is a possibility of infection or a perforated eardrum (the same is true of olive oil drops) so be sure to explain all of your symptoms first. And avoid using cotton buds to clean your ears - they will only exacerbate any problems.

If you are unsure as to the cause of the problem, it is best to see your GP - your doctor can not only properly diagnose the symptoms but prescribe drops or antibiotics if an infection has taken hold.