Earaches are very common in children, but adults can get them too. Earaches are also not always indicative of an infection - there are other causes of ear pain and they usually are not serious.
One of the more common causes of an earache in adults is a build up of earwax. Sometimes the earwax produced in your ear gets trapped and can’t find its way out, this can lead to a buildup of earwax in the ear canal and sometimes a condition doctors call impaction. Impaction can be painful and can adversely affect your hearing and balance, but it can be remedied by removing the earwax. Don’t use cotton swabs or other objects to try to get wax out. You'll risk pushing it farther into your ear canal and make the problem worse. You can treat mildly impacted ears at home with over-the-counter ear drops that soften the wax so it can naturally drain. Go see your doctor if the wax has hardened, they can get the wax out without damaging your eardrum.
We’ve all experienced ear pain while driving up a mountain, or flying in a plane, but quick changes, like when you’re on an airplane or in an elevator, can throw off the balance. Most of the time, your ear does a great job of keeping pressure equal on both sides of your eardrum. That little pop you feel when you swallow is part of the process.
To avoid ear pain during sudden elevation changes:
- Chew gum, suck on hard candy, or yawn and swallow
- Take a deep breath, pinch your nostrils shut, then gently try to blow air out of your nose.
- Avoid air travel and diving when you have a cold, sinus infection or allergies.
If you spend a lot of time in the water and your ear begins to hurt when you pull on the earlobe, then you might have an ear infection in your outer ear called swimmer’s ear. This happens when water gets trapped in your ear canal and germs begin ot grow in it. This can cause redness, swelling, itching, and leaking fluid. To avoid this problem, do your best to dry your ears after swimming. An infection like this requires a visit to the doctor and usually a prescription of antibiotics.
Middle Ear Infection
One of the more serious causes of ear pain is a middle ear infection. These are usually accompanied by a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection and is caused by the tubes becoming blocked in your middle ear. The fluid inside these tubes can get infected and this is the cause of the pain. If you suspect this is the problem then you need to go to a doctor to determine if the cause is bacterial or viral and how best to treat the problem. Avoiding treatment can be painful and could result in the infection spreading and maybe even hearing loss.
You can sometimes feel ear pain when the source is somewhere else in your body like a toothache. This happens because the nerves in your face and neck pass very close to your inner ear. Doctors call this type of pain that starts in one area but is felt in another “referred pain.” If your earache also includes a severe sore throat, it could be an infection like tonsillitis, so you need to see your doctor and receive appropriate treatment.
If your ear only hurts in the morning, see our blog post "Why does my ear hurt when I wake up" for more info.
How to unclog your ears
There are numerous methods for treating clogged ears. Some involve medications or trips to the doctor, but others you can do with things you likely already have at home. Here are some tips for unclogging your ears, but first, you need to determine if the problem is in your middle ear, behind the eardrum, or the outer ear — specifically the auditory canal, where earwax can build up.
Tips for a clogged middle ear
A Valsalva maneuver is a fancy medical term for “popping your ears” and helps open the eustachian tubes.
An easy way to do this is to plug your nose and then blow out while keeping your lips closed. It’s important not to blow your nose too hard, which could cause problems with your eardrum. This procedure is only helpful when there are pressure changes, such as changing altitude. It will not correct conditions of excess fluid in the inner ear.
Nasal spray or oral decongestants
Nasal sprays and oral decongestants can be especially useful when flying or if you have nasal or sinus congestion. They’re often more effective as a preventive treatment.
Tips for a clogged outer ear
Try dripping mineral, olive, or baby oil into your clogged ear. Warm two to three tablespoons of oil. Check it on your hand or wrist to make sure it’s a safe temperature. Then, use an eyedropper to put one to two drops in your ear. Keep your head tilted for 10 to 15 seconds. Do this a couple of times daily for up to 5 days until the blockage seems to be better.
Hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide otic
Hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide otic can also be dripped into your ear. Combine the peroxide with warm water in a bowl first. Then, follow the steps to apply it as you would for the oil above.
You’ll likely experience some fizzing — let it do this and keep your head at an angle until it stops.
Over-the-counter ear drops
You can pick up ear drops online or at your local pharmacy. Use as directed on the packaging.
All of the ear drop processes will soften the ear wax so after a few days the earwax should pass out of your ear canal and any pain should subside. If it does not clear the blockage, you can try performing an irrigation with a bulb and warm water after using ear drops.
See our blog post "Do ear drops work for clogged ears" for more details.
Warm compress or steam
Try placing a warm compress over your ear, or try taking a hot shower. A shower can help get steam into your ear canal. Just make sure to stay in for at least 5 to 10 minutes.
Having an ear canal clogged with earwax usually can be taken care of at home without visiting a doctor. The first step is to look inside your ear canal with a digital otoscope. A digital otoscope is the best earwax removal tool because it allows you to see your delicate ear drum while you are performing the wax removal.
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