What is an earache?

An earache is pain or discomfort of the ear. Ear pain is also called otalgia. Your ear is divided into three sections: the outer ear (includes the external ear and ear canal), the middle ear (includes the eardrum, three tiny bones called ossicles, and the eustachian tube), and the inner ear. The eustachian tubes are responsible for equalizing air pressure in the middle ear and allowing mucus to drain from the middle ear to the throat.

An earache can affect one or both ears and can vary from a mild, dull ache to a throbbing or stabbing pain that is nearly incapacitating. A sense of fullness in the ear, as well as a burning sensation, may accompany an earache. An earache can occur suddenly or progress slowly.

The most common cause of earaches in children is a middle ear infection (otitis media). Otitis media is far less common in adults. In adults, ear pain is most often  caused by an underlying condition in another region of the body that leads to a secondary earache, called referred ear pain. Possible causes of referred ear pain include disorders of the temporomandibular joint, the jaw, and the teeth. Referred ear pain increases with age.

Depending on the cause, an earache can begin suddenly and disappear quickly, such as an earache due to a change in altitude. An earache that does not go away within 24 to 48 hours or gets worse may be due to a variety of disorders and conditions including arthritis of the jaw joint, an ear infection, or a foreign body in the ear.

Because an earache may be due to a serious infection or other abnormal process, you should seek prompt medical care for an earache that gets progressively worse or does not improve within 24 to 48 hours. An earache that suddenly stops or occurs with a bloody discharge may be a sign of a ruptured eardrum. Although this is not a medical emergency, you should seek prompt medical care if you suspect a ruptured eardrum.

If you, your child, or someone you are with, are experiencing ear pain along with excessive crying, high fever, dizziness, change in alertness, ear swelling, or facial weakness, seek immediate medical care (call 911).

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with an earache?

An earache may occur with a variety of other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Possible symptoms that occur with an earache include:

CAUSES

What causes an earache?

In children, an earache is most likely due to a middle ear infection, but it can also be caused by irritating substances in the ear and other conditions. A middle ear infection (otitis media) often follows an upper respiratory infection, such as the common cold.

In adults, ear pain is often due to disorders and conditions in another area that spread to the ear. This is due to the ... Read more about earachecauses

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 1, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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