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Answering every mom’s question: Is it an earache or ear infection?

Answering every mom’s question: Is it an earache or ear infection?

Your little one is complaining of ear pain this morning. You wonder whether it’s an infection or just too much water in the ears after an afternoon spent at swim practice. Knowing whether it’s an earache or ear infection can help you determine what to do next.

There are many different causes of ear pain, and several of them are mild and go away on their own fairly quickly. But in other cases, treatment is needed to get your child back to feeling at his best.

While the only way to know for sure what’s causing your child’s ears to hurt is to visit a pediatrician or other medical provider, we’re breaking down some facts about the causes of earaches in today’s blog.

It might not be an infection…

People of all ages experience earaches. While some ear pain is the result of ear infections, there are other underlying causes of pain.

If you’ve ever been on an airplane or climbed a mountain, you’re probably familiar with one common source of ear pain. Changes in air pressure can throw off the balance in the ear, causing eustachian tube dysfunction that leads to discomfort. When this happens, you’ll probably hear a familiar pop, your ears may hurt and you may have trouble hearing, at least for a few minutes.

Excess earwax can also cause ear pain. Normally your ear rids itself of wax as part of its normal functioning, but sometimes that wax can build up in the ear canal. This is called impacted wax, and it can lead to an earache.

In some other cases, pain felt in the ear isn’t actually related to the ear at all. For example, a toothache may cause what’s known as “referred pain,” which is felt in the ear even though it emanates from the mouth.

But it might be …

Infections are also a frequent cause of earaches, and there are many different kinds of infections that can cause ear pain. A viral infection, like the flu, for example, may cause all kinds of body aches, including earaches. An upper respiratory infection, caused by either bacteria or a virus, can also settle into the ears, leading to pain.

And then there are ear infections. There are a couple common types of ear infections—swimmer’s ear and middle ear infections.

Swimmer’s ear is an infection affecting the outer ear, which happens when water is trapped in the ear canal, creating ideal conditions for germs. This type of infection can cause the ear to turn red, be swollen or itch.

A middle ear infection, on the other hand, affects the middle ear. This type of infection, which is common in children, occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear, and it can be either bacterial or viral.

When to seek medical attention for ear pain

Now we get to the big question: Does ear pain call for a trip to the doctor? The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Ear pain that’s related to something other than an infection will likely come and go quickly. It can often be alleviated by basic at-home care, such as taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or other pain reliever.

Ringing in the ears and sore throat pain can be symptoms of an ear infection but may not warrant a physician’s care. However, it’s important to head to the doctor if you or your child experience any of the following symptoms in addition to an earache:

  • Dizziness
  • Ear discharge that’s bloody or sticky
  • Fever
  • Hearing loss
  • Trouble hearing

If ear pain lingers for longer than two to three days, that’s also time to check in with a doctor. A medical provider can determine whether an infection is present and decide whether an antibiotic is needed if the infection is bacterial.

What you can do at home for an earache

When ear pain first pops up, you can take some basic steps at home to try to relieve the pain. These steps vary a bit depending on what you think is causing the pain.

If you’re traveling in an area where air pressure fluctuations may be to blame, try giving your child a lollipop to suck on or a piece of gum to chew. Both can help “pop” the ear and restore better balance in the eustachian tubes.

Other minor ear pain may be alleviated by taking an over-the-counter pain reliever or anti-inflammatory or simply by applying a cold compress to the ear itself.

While these tips may help with pain relief, it’s important to check in with the doctor if pain lingers or is accompanied by other symptoms. If a bacterial ear infection is causing the earache, and symptoms do not improve on their own, medication may be needed to stop the infection and the pain.

Primary care providers are your go-to source for everything from your annual checkup to care for an acute illness like an ear infection. Need a doctor? Find one here.