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What you need to know about earaches

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Experiencing pain in your ear is pretty common and it’s usually nothing to worry about. Normally the cause is an ear infection, however there are some other things that can cause this type of pain. Read on for a full guide to earache, and to find out how to treat your symptoms.

Causes of earache – why it happens

Pain in the ear can be caused by a few different things. Common causes include:

  • Infection in the inner ear or ear canal
  • Build-up of ear wax
  • Viral infections like the cold or flu
  • Injury to the ear
  • Sore throat or tonsillitis
  • Dental abscess

It might not always be easy to tell what’s causing your earache, however there are some differences in symptoms that might give you a clue.

You may also have a fever and feel tired or generally unwell with an ear infection. Ear infections affecting the ear canal might also cause itching and discharge. A build-up of earwax or an injury to the ear might cause hearing loss or tinnitus – however these can also be symptoms of an infection.

Other symptoms including coughing, sneezing, headaches, muscle aches and a sore throat may accompany a viral infection like the common cold or flu.

A sore throat or tonsillitis may cause pain when swallowing, while a dental abscess will usually be accompanied by a bad toothache.

Earache after swimming

Getting water in your ear can lead to an infection in the ear canal. This bacterial infection is sometimes known as swimmer’s ear or otitis externa and can be caused by water that has been in the outer ear canal for a long time. Swimmer’s ear can be avoided by wearing a bathing cap or ear plugs as well as thoroughly drying the ears after swimming. Getting water in your ear might also worsen symptoms of an existing earache.

Can hay fever give you earache?

Yes, earache can be a symptom of hay fever, along with a headache and pain around your temples and forehead.If your ear ache is caused by hay fever read our hay fever treatment guide for product recommendations and treatment tips. Or come in-store where one of our pharmacists can help with hay fever medicines.

Is earache a symptom of covid?

Earache isn’t considered a normal symptom of COVID-19. However, it is listed as a symptom of long COVID, along with tinnitus (ringing in the ears). If earache is the main symptom you’re experiencing, it’s unlikely you have COVID-19, unless you’re also having the other standard symptoms:

  • Fever
  • New, continuous cough
  • Loss of or change to your sense of taste and smell

What to do when you have earache

The NHS recommends that you see your GP if you’ve had earache for more than three days, or if you’re getting it regularly. Otherwise, it can be helpful to visit your local pharmacist for advice, as they may be able to recommend some pharmacy treatments to help ease your symptoms.

How to treat earache

The treatment for your earache will depend on the cause.

For an ear infection, treatment with an over-the-counter eardrop may help. Acidic eardrops are usually recommended as these will help stop the spread of the bacteria or fungus causing the infection. Also make sure to ask your pharmacist for the best ear infection treatment for you.

If the cause is a build-up of earwax, you can try putting a few drops of medical grade olive or almond oil into the affected ear. Doing this three or four times a day (usually for three to five days) can help soften the wax in your ear so that it breaks up and falls out. Your pharmacist can also suggest some medicine that helps dissolve wax.

Stubborn earwax might need to be removed using ear irrigation or microsuction. Some GP surgeries will offer this, but you may have to have it privately.

Occasionally, antibiotics might be an appropriate treatment for an ear infection. You might need antibiotics if you have a stubborn infection in your ear canal, or if you have bacterial tonsillitis.

How to relieve the pain

You should be able to relieve the pain of a mild earache by taking over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen. It can also help to lie down and place a warm or cold flannel over the affected ear. Please ask your pharmacist for advice on which painkiller would be most suitable for you.

How to get to sleep when you have earache

Try taking some painkillers before you go to bed and avoid sleeping on the affected ear. If possible, use more than one pillow to keep your ear raised.

What not to do when you have earache

Regardless of what’s causing your earache, you should avoid doing the following:

  • Putting things in your ear e.g. cotton buds
  • Trying to remove earwax yourself
  • Getting water inside your ear

You’ll also need to avoid using ear drops if you have a perforated eardrum.

How long does earache last?

Most earaches only last a few days, however it really depends on what’s causing the pain. Remember, the NHS guidance is to speak to your GP if you’ve had earache for more than three days, or if you’re getting it frequently. It’s advised that you get an urgent appointment if you have a very high fever, swelling around the ear, or hearing loss, or if there’s fluid coming from your ear.

Is an ear infection contagious?

An ear infection isn’t contagious itself, so you can’t pass it to another person or catch it off someone else. However, it can be caused by contagious infections like the common cold and the flu.

Will earache go away on its own?

Earache will often go away on its own, especially if the cause is a minor infection like the common cold. However, if the cause is a stubborn build-up of earwax, or a more serious infection, you’ll probably need medical attention.