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What is an earache?

An earache is pain inside or around the ear. Earaches are common in children.

What is the cause?

Common causes include:

  • Infections

    Your child may get a cold and the infection may spread to the middle ear. The tube between the middle ear and throat may swell. The swelling traps fluid, which can cause pain.

    The ear canal, or outer ear, can also get infected and cause pain. This usually happens during the summer when children have been swimming.

  • Injury

    Small objects placed in the ear, such as toys or cotton swabs, may hurt the ear.

  • Pressure

    Earwax may form a blockage that causes pressure. Changes in air pressure (such as during air travel) can also cause pain.

Children sometimes say their ear hurts when the pain is actually from another place. It may be caused by teething, chewing gum, or an infection of the scalp, neck, or sinuses.

What are the symptoms?

When your child has an earache, he or she may:

  • Complain of pain in the ear, cry, or be irritable
  • Have drainage of fluid from the ear
  • Have a temporary loss of hearing
  • Have a fever

Very young children may pull at the ear when they have pain.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and examine your child. Your provider may examine your child's ears with a special scope.

How is it treated?

Ear pain is usually treated with pain medicines, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days for any reason.

Middle ear infections often get better in a few days without antibiotics. Antibiotics may be recommended if the symptoms do not get better after a few days, for children under age 2, or for children who have other medical problems.

Infections of the ear canal are often treated with antibiotic drops, which may also contain medicine for pain.

Wax or objects blocking the ear canal should be removed by your healthcare provider.

How can I take care of my child?

For middle ear or ear canal infections, follow your healthcare provider's instructions for care.

To help relieve pain you can put a warm moist washcloth or a hot water bottle covered with a towel over the ear.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How long it will take your child to recover from this illness
  • What activities your child should avoid and when he can return to his normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

If your child has problems with earwax, you can put 1 to 2 drops of mineral or vegetable oil into the ear canal for a few minutes each day. Wipe away any oil that drips out from the ear. You can start doing this just once a week or less often when your child has less pain or stuffiness in the ear or seems to be hearing better. There are many nonprescription drops that may be helpful as well. Never put things like cotton swabs in the ear canal.

If your child's ears hurt from changes in air pressure (like during airplane rides or driving in the mountains), you can help your child learn how to relieve the pressure. Teach older children to close their mouth and pinch their nose, and then gently blow air out. This will often make the ears feel like they "pop." For babies, you can help by nursing or feeding your child when you are changing altitude (like during takeoff or landing in a plane). Swallowing helps balance the air pressure.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-02-27
Last reviewed: 2012-02-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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