Earaches and Ear Infections: What You Need to Know

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Earaches and Ear Infections: What You Need to Know


Jo Gates

Dr. Jo Gates

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8am – 8pm, 7 days a week

Earaches and Ear Infections: What You Need to Know

Earaches are certainly uncomfortable, and if you or your child are experiencing this type of pain, it’s important to understand the cause as soon as possible. You will be in a far better position to recover quickly if you can recognize the difference between an earache that will clear up on its own and an ear infection that may require further treatment.

What Causes Ear Pain?

Viral infections like the flu or common cold, as well as seasonal allergies can put pressure on the eardrum and lead to fluid build-up in the middle ear.  Ear pain can also be caused by “swimmer’s ear”, an ear infection of the outer ear canal that occurs when water gets trapped in the ear after swimming. If you’re already suffering from a stuffy nose or sore throat that tend to accompany illnesses like the flu or common cold, an earache is certainly an unwelcome addition.

Who Is at Risk?

Though adults are certainly susceptible to earaches and ear infections, middle ear infections are especially common in children under the age of eight and can often come on suddenly. Pain can range in severity from a mild, dull ache to sharp, burning or throbbing sensations in one or both ears.

What’s the Difference Between an Earache and an Ear Infection?

Ear pain associated with allergies or viral infections like the flu or common cold can sometimes develop into an ear infection. Occasionally, the eustachian tube will become blocked, preventing the fluid from draining out of the ear, causing bacteria to form as a result. Ear infections are caused by bacteria and may require antibiotics for relief. Symptoms of an earache do not always differ from symptoms of an ear infection, and it can be difficult to identify the cause of ear pain without an exam.

Earaches and ear infections are most common in young children who may be too young to communicate their symptoms. Here are some behaviors and symptoms that you can look out for to tell if your child might have an ear infection:

  • Tugging or pulling at the ear or ears (can be an indicator of an ear infection, but may also be caused by teething, tiredness, or fluid in the middle ear)
  • Fussiness, crying, and/or trouble sleeping (often pain gets worse when lying down)
  • Fever (especially in infants and younger children)
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Trouble hearing or decreased response to sounds

Diagnosing and Treating Earaches and Ear Infections

For earaches caused by viral infections or allergies, the best way to seek relief in the comfort of your own home is by pressing a warm cloth or compress against the affected ear and taking an over the counter pain reliever.

However, if your ear pain is severe and persistent, or you have other symptoms of an ear infection like fever that is not subsiding, fluid or discharge, seek medical attention as you may have an ear infection that requires antibiotics.

Diagnosing the cause of earache and ear infection begins with a physical examination. If a viral infection is the most likely cause of symptoms, treatment often includes the use of a warm compress along with decongestants and pain and fever reducers. If bacterial infection is suspected, a treating provider may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics—particularly if at-home treatment has been ineffective. While symptoms typically improve within one week, residual symptoms—such as tinnitus—may take longer to fully resolve.

If you or a family member are experiencing symptoms, simply stop into any ConvenientMD location in Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Maine to get evaluated and treated! All of our clinics are open 8am – 8pm, 7 days a week, and you can just walk in without having to make an appointment.