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What’s causing your earache?

5 minute read
Person swimming in pool

Kids aren’t the only ones who get earaches. If your ear hurts, it may be due to swimmer’s ear, jaw pain or something else. Here’s how to figure out the culprit.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

If you’re a parent, you’re probably familiar with ear infections. Kids seem to develop them every time they get a cold. But grown-ups can also get earaches.

Ear pain is very common in adults, says Ileana Showalter, MD. She’s an otolaryngologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “It can be caused by ear infections, ear injuries or foreign bodies in the ear, among other things.”

Learn about 4 of the most common causes of adult earaches and what you can do to relieve the pain.

Earache culprit #1: Swimmer’s ear

Summer is the prime time for a painful condition called swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa.

What causes it: Around 90% of the time, swimmer’s ear is caused by a bacterial infection, according to a study in American Family Physician. The rest of the cases are caused by fungal infections. Either way, swimmer’s ear causes redness, swelling and pain in the outer ear canal. Swimming in contaminated water is a common cause, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. But you don’t even have to dip your toes in the water to get swimmer’s ear. Putting things in your ear, such as cotton swabs or earbuds, can also trigger it.

How to treat it: If you suspect swimmer’s ear, you can try treating it at home. “White vinegar will neutralize the bacteria in the ear canal,” says Alan E. Oshinsky, MD. He is chief of the division of otolaryngology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. First, boil some water and let it cool to room temperature. Then mix the water with an equal amount of white vinegar. Use an eye dropper to place a few drops inside the affected ear.

For pain, you can turn to over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen (Advil®) or naproxen (Aleve®).

If there’s no improvement or your pain gets worse, see your primary care doctor or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. Your physician might prescribe antibiotic ear drops.

How to prevent it: If you’ve had swimmer’s ear in the past, take these steps to prevent another bout:

  • Wear a swim cap or earplugs while you’re in the water.
  • Get the water out of your ears after swimming. “Lean to one side and shake your head,” Dr. Oshinsky says. “If you have a lot of wax in your ear and you don’t get the water out, it will sit there and can cause problems.” You can also try OTC solutions such as Debrox® or Murine™ ear drops.

You can find a variety of OTC pain relievers at the Optum Store.

Earache culprit #2: Middle ear infection

This ear infection, also known as otitis media, is the one parents are so familiar with in their kids. But adults can get it, too.

What causes it: Otitis media is caused by bacteria or a virus in the middle ear. It’s often the result of a cold or allergies, according to the Mayo Clinic. The pain feels similar to swimmer’s ear. One way to tell the difference is a simple tug test: “If you tug on your ear backward and downward and it really hurts, you likely have swimmer’s ear,” Dr. Oshinsky says. “If you have a middle ear infection, you typically won’t have any pain when you do this.”

How to treat it: If you have a middle ear infection, your doctor may give you an antibiotic. But if your ear pain coincides with a cold, antibiotics likely can’t help. When an adult gets a cold, fluid can develop behind the ear drum, explains Dr. Oshinsky. That can make it feel like your ears are clogged up. While you wait for your cold to clear up — which should take your ear pain with it — you can try using an OTC decongestant or a topical decongestant spray.

How to prevent it: The best strategy is to avoid getting a cold in the first place. Wash your hands frequently. Don’t share utensils with family members who are sick. And teach young kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow to avoid spreading germs.

Earache culprit #3: Grinding your teeth

Clenching or grinding your teeth can lead to pain in and around your ear.

What causes it: The temporomandibular joint is the “hinge” just in front of your ears that connects your jawbone to the rest of your skull. If you grind your teeth (usually something people do while they’re asleep), you’re putting pressure on that joint. That can cause pain in the joint and the muscles that move your jaw. How does something you’re doing with your jaw show up as pain in your ear? Doctors call it referred pain — when an injury or action in one part of your body causes you to feel pain in another.

How to treat it: Tell your dentist or an ENT if you have pain in your jaw and ear area. Another red flag: It hurts to open or close your jaw. Taking ibuprofen (Advil) can relieve the pain. Another effective treatment is wearing a custom-fitted night guard. This keeps you from clenching your teeth while you’re asleep.

How to prevent it: Your doctor might suggest that you eat softer foods and avoid chewing gum.

Earache culprit #4: You stuck something in your ear

One avoidable cause of ear pain? Make sure nothing is in your ear that shouldn’t be.

What causes it: For adults, the most likely culprit is a cotton swab. Using one too aggressively can result in damage to the ear canal — or even leaving some of the cotton material behind.

How to treat it: See your primary care provider or an ENT to have it checked out. A doctor can examine the inside of your ear to assess what’s going on.

How to prevent it: Never clean the inside of your ears with a cotton swab or put anything into your ear canal. It’s best to follow the old advice that doctors have been saying for years: “Nothing smaller than an elbow goes in the ear.”

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Additional sources
Causes of ear pain: American Family Physician (2018). “Ear Pain: Diagnosing Common and Uncommon Causes”
Swimmer’s ear causes: Johns Hopkins Medicine (n.d.). “Swimmer’s Ear”
Otitis media: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Ear Infection—Middle Ear”