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Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 12 and Older

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the ear

Ear problems may be caused by many different health problems. In children, ear pain is more likely to be a symptom of an inflammation, infection, or fluid buildup in the external or middle ear. But ear pain at any age may be a symptom of:

Ear problems caused by an injury to the ear can occur at any age. Common injuries include the following:

  • A fall or a forceful, direct blow to the side of the head can burst the eardrum or damage the tiny bones in the inner ear that send sound to the brain.
  • An injury during contact sports, such as a "cauliflower" ear injury from wrestling.
  • Loud noises or explosions can damage the eardrum (acoustic trauma).
  • Atmospheric pressure changes (barotrauma) can cause problems with the eustachian tube and trap air in or keep air out of the middle ear. Middle ear problems can be severe (for example, the ear drum can burst or the middle ear can fill with blood or pus) or mild and only be felt as changes in pressure.
  • Cuts or scrapes may injure the outside of the ear or ear canal. For more information, see the topic Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear).
  • Cleaning the ear canal too often, too forcefully, or with a cotton swab, bobby pin, or sharp fingernail can cause irritation or injury.
  • Burns or frostbite can cause ear injuries (thermal injuries).
  • Objects placed in the ear can cause injury to the ear canal or the ear drum (tympanic membrane).

Hearing loss often comes with age. As people get older, ear problems are more likely to be related to:

  • Heredity. The age of onset and how quickly the hearing loss progresses can often be determined by studying family members with hearing loss.
  • The buildup of earwax. For more information, see the topic Earwax.
  • Exposure to loud noises, such as setting off an air bag during a car crash, machines at work, power tools, gunshots, or loud music.
  • Other serious medical problems, such as Ménière's disease or an acoustic neuroma.
  • Skin reaction (dermatitis) on the outside of the ear or in the ear canal from perfume, hair dye, or wearing hearing aids.

The ear shares nerves with other parts of the face, eyes, jaw, teeth, and upper neck. Pain that feels as if it is in the ear may be coming from another part of the head or neck. This is called referred ear pain and is more common in older adults. Causes of referred ear pain can include dental problems, jaw pain (temporomandibular disorder), salivary gland infection, or a sinus infection.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Home treatment may be all that is needed to relieve minor or intermittent ear discomfort.

  • To ease ear pain, apply a warm washcloth or a heating pad set on low. There may be some drainage from the ear when the heat melts earwax.
    • Do not use a heating pad when you are in bed. You may fall asleep and burn yourself.
    • Do not use a heating pad on a child.
  • Try an ice or cold pack to reduce swelling from a minor injury or sunburn. Apply for 15 minutes 3 or 4 times a day during the first 48 hours after the injury. The sooner you apply a cold pack, the less swelling you are likely to have. Place a cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • Oral or nasal decongestants may relieve ear pain, especially if the pain is related to fluid behind the eardrum (otitis media with effusion). Avoid products that contain antihistamines, which tend to cause more blockage, unless allergies seem to be the problem.
  • Chewing gum may help relieve pressure changes in the ear, such as when flying in an airplane.
  • Try a nonprescription earwax remover if your ear feels plugged but you do not have obvious signs of infection. Be sure to follow the label directions carefully.
  • Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax or the treatment of other ear problems, and they can cause serious injury.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain develops or increases.
  • Fever or other signs of ear infection develop.
  • New or different drainage from the ear develops.
  • Other symptoms develop, such as hearing loss or vertigo.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

You may be able to prevent ear problems.

  • Teach your children to blow their noses gently. Remember to do this yourself also.
  • Keep soap and shampoo out of the ear canal. These products can cause itching, which can be mistaken for an ear infection because of the need to scratch or pull at the ears.
  • Do not put cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects (especially if they are sharp) in the ear canal.
  • Limit your contact with others who have colds, when possible.
  • Protect your ears from sunburn and frostbite.
    • Apply sunscreen to your ears and wear a hat that shades the ears in the summer.
    • Wear a hat that covers the ears in the winter.
  • Limit or avoid exposure to loud noises such as music, power tools, gunshots, and industrial machinery.
  • Wear protective earplugs or earmuffs if you can't avoid loud noises.
    • Avoid the prolonged use of earplugs. They can cause irritation, itching, and can plug the ear with wax.
    • Do not use wadded-up tissue or cotton balls. These do not protect adequately against loud noises (especially the more dangerous high frequencies) and they may become lodged in the ear canal.
  • Avoid exposing children to cigarette smoke, which is linked with more frequent ear infections. If you smoke and are unable to stop, smoke outside, away from children.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking irritates the mucous membranes that line the nose, sinuses, and lungs, and it may contribute to inflammation or infection of the ear. See the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • If ear pain appears to be related to a problem with your jaw, see the topic Temporomandibular (TM) Disorders for tips on relaxing the muscles in this area.
  • Take good care of your teeth. Daily brushing and flossing, along with regular dental checkups, helps prevent tooth decay, infections, and other dental problems that can lead to referred ear pain.
  • If you wear hearing aids, be sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations carefully for cleaning and storing them.
  • For tips on how to prevent swimmer's ear, see the topic Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear).

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Do you have ear pain?
    • When did the pain start?
    • What were you doing when the pain started?
    • Does the pain come from the inside or the outside of your ear?
    • Has the pain been constant, or does it come and go?
    • Does anything make the pain better or worse?
  • Have you ever had this type of ear problem before? If yes, what was the diagnosis and how was it treated?
  • What other symptoms do you have? Do you have a fever, runny nose, cough, congestion, or jaw discomfort?
  • Do you suspect a hearing problem? Be prepared to describe your symptoms.
    • Do you have hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)?
    • Does your hearing problem affect just one ear or both ears?
  • Do you use hearing aids?
  • Have you had a recent injury to the ear?
  • Do you have any other symptoms in your eye, teeth, jaw, facial muscles, or neck that might suggest referred pain?
  • Do you have drainage from the ear? If yes, what does it look and smell like?
  • Have you had problems with earaches or ear infections in the past?
  • Have you been swimming or had other recent exposure to water, such as through surfing, kayaking, or scuba diving?
  • Do you regularly use a hot tub or home spa?
  • Have you recently traveled by plane?
  • What home treatment measures have you used? Be sure to include nonprescription and prescription medicines you have tried.
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised January 12, 2012

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