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Earache is a common problem, especially in children. It can be concerning but often it is caused by only a minor infection and will get better after a few days, usually without need for further treatment.

Earache can be dull, sharp or aching in nature and can be there all the time or come and go. It may affect one or both ears.

What causes earache?

Ear infections – if you have an ear infection there may be a watery or pus-like discharge from the ear.

  • Outer and middle ear infections are the most common cause of earache.
  • Ear infections often clear up on their own within a few days or weeks without treatment.
  • You may need to be prescribed ear drops or antibiotics by your doctor if the infection is severe.

    Further information is available at NHS Choices: Outer Ear  /  Middle Ear

Glue ear – a build of fluid deep in the ear.

  • This condition can cause temporary hearing loss
  • Whilst it is usually painless, the build up of pressure within the ear can cause some discomfort
  • Glue ear often clears up on its own over several months
  • If symptoms persist then a procedure to place a small tube in the ear drum, called a grommet, can be done

    Further information is available at NHS Choices

Ear damage – usually caused by an injury to the inside of the ear.

  • This can be caused by scraping wax from the inside of the canal or poking an ear bud in too far which can damage the ear drum.
  • A perforated ear drum heals by itself over time without treatment, but can take up to 2 months to heal completely.
  • If you have damaged you eardrum you should not use ear drops.

    Further information is available at NHS Choices

Ear wax

  • A build up of wax in the ear can cause ear pain.
  • If you suffers with a build up of ear wax, your pharmacist will be able to recommend ear drops to soften it so that it falls out naturally.
  • In extreme cases , your doctor may need to removed softened wax using irrigation.

Something in the ear

  • If you think there is something in your or your child's ear, do not try to remove it yourself – you may end up pushing if further in and causing further damage.
  • You will need to attend your local A&E department to have the object removed.

Throat infections

  • If you are finding it painful to swallow or have a sore throat, your earache could be due to a throat infection.
  • Tonsillitis (an inflammation of the tonsils) usually resolves itself after a few days without the need for antibiotics.
  • Quinsy / an abscess at the back of the throat causes severe pain and problems swallowing fluids – you will need to see your doctor urgently if you have quinsy.

Jaw problems

  • Earache can be caused by a problem with the temporo-mandibular joint (where the jaw joins the skull).
  • This can be caused by arthritis or even through grinding you teeth.
  • Pain can often be relieved using warm/cold compresses and simple pain relief and trying to avoid clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth.

    Further information is available at NHS Choices

Dental abscesses

  • Dental abscesses are caused by a collection of pus under a tooth or gum which causes swelling and pain which can sometimes spread to your ear.
  • This is normally as a result of a bacterial infection.
  • You need to see a dentist as soon as possible to treat the course of infection.

    Further information is available at NHS Choices

When do I need to seek medical advice?

It is not always necessary to seek medical advice for earache – symptoms often resolve in a few days and there are simple things you can do at home to help.

You can contact NHS direct if:

  • you or your child has other symptoms such as a very high temperature, vomiting, a sever sore throat,  swelling around the ear or discharge from the ear
  • you think there may be something stuck in the ear
  • the earache does not get better after a  few days or is getting worse.

What can I do to manage symptoms at home?

  • Use regular pain relief such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, which can be brought over the counter.
  • Using a warm compress on the ear can also help to relieve some discomfort.
  • Visit your pharmacist who can advise on any suitable ear drops to help relieve some earache.
  • Ear drops and olive oil should not be used if you have a perforated ear drum.
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