Earache Symptoms and Treatment

Learn what causes earaches and how to alleviate the symptoms.

girl with earache
Photo: GladskikhTatiana/shutterstock.com

The most common cause of earache is a middle ear infection (acute otitis media) that results from an infection in the upper respiratory tract, similar to a cold. The infection causes the mucus membranes in the Eustachian tube (the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat) to swell, and the pressure behind the eardrum increases. The low pressure in the ear then leads to a build-up of fluids and middle ear infection. When a child has a cold or a fever, he may experience pain in one or both ears. A younger child may not yet be able to tell you that he is in pain and where the pain is located, but he may give you nonverbal signs: sudden screaming fits, irritability, and holding or pulling on the affected ear.

Symptoms and Signs of Earaches

Once the middle ear is infected, pus builds up behind the eardrum and, as a result, increased pressure on the eardrum causes pain. At the same time, the eardrum itself becomes thick and swollen and may rupture, leading the pus to run into the ear canal and out the ear.

Treatment for Earaches

For children 2 years old or older who are not seriously ill and have no fever, simply monitor the condition for 1 to 2 days. Many cases of middle ear infection will get better after a few days.

You can give your child the following treatments to ease the earache:

  • Have your child lie down with her head slightly elevated. This will help ease the earache.
  • Give your child some decongestant nose drops if she has a stuffy nose. This will make it easier to breathe and to eat. Don't use these drops for more than 2 to 3 days.
  • Give your child pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Children's Advil) to lessen the ear pain. Follow the dosage instructions on the package.
  • Place a warm compress carefully over your child's ear for approximately 20 minutes. This may ease the earache considerably.
  • Schedule a check-up with your child's doctor 2 to 3 weeks after the ear infection so the doctor can make sure that your child's eardrums are normal.
  • Don't expose your child to cigarette smoke, which has been shown to increase the frequency and severity of ear infections.

Call 911 or the doctor immediately if your child:

  • Is younger than 1 year old and has an ear infection.
  • Is older than 1 year old and has an earache and a fever.
  • Has something stuck in his ear.
  • Has an earache along with a stiff neck.
  • Has an earache along with swollen and red skin behind the ear.
  • Has an earache along with dizziness or difficulty balancing.
  • Has an acute earache that causes crying, and pain relievers are not working.
  • Has pus or blood is running out of his ear, an indication that the eardrum has ruptured.
  • Still has an earache or fever after two days of treatment with antibiotics.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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