A variety of problems can cause earaches in children and adults:
- Middle ear infection (called acute otitis media)
- Swimmer’s ear (called otitis externa)
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction or jaw joint pain
- Eustachian tube dysfunction
- Inflammation of the outer ear (called chondritis)
- Cotton swab use
- Throat infection
- Throat cancer (rarely)
What Causes Earaches in Children?
In children, earaches are commonly due to an infection of the middle ear (acute otitis media), and can affect one or both ears. Otitis media can be serious because the infection can spread to nearby structures in the head, especially the mastoid located behind the ear. Otitis media may also cause hearing loss; in children, it may impair learning ability and even delay speech development. However, if it is treated promptly and effectively, hearing can almost always be restored to normal.
Many cases of otitis media can be treated by your pediatrician or family doctor; more serious cases may need attention from an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist.
Ear infections are often due to eustachian tube dysfunction. Inside your ear you have something called an eustachian tube that equalizes pressure behind the ear drum and naturally clears middle-ear secretions. When the eustachian tube becomes blocked due to a cold, allergy, upper respiratory infection (URI), bacteria, or a virus, negative pressure can develop and mucus can collect behind the eardrum causing pain, swelling, and redness.
What Causes Earaches in Adults?
In adults, common causes of earaches include otitis externa or swimmer’s ear and TMJ dysfunction. Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the ear canal and results from swimming in contaminated water or as a result of cotton swab use. In people with diabetes, otitis externa can spread far beyond the ear canal and can be life threatening. Therefore, prompt treatment with antibiotic ear drops as well as cleaning of the ear canal with specialized tools available to an ENT specialist is critical. Another common cause of ear pain is due to referred pain from the jaw joint. This is usually due to grinding of teeth during sleep. TMJ pain can be treated with ibuprofen, eating softer food, avoiding chewing gum, and using a night guard.
An avoidable cause of earache is the use of cotton swabs or other instruments to clean wax from the ear, which can damage the ear canal. Following the old adage that “nothing smaller than an elbow goes in the ear” can avoid dangerous injury to the ear canal and the eardrum. A rare cause of earache is referred pain from infection or cancer of the throat.