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How cold and flu affect your ears

Last update on Oct, 06, 2023

You can get colds or the flu at any time of the year, but the viruses that cause these common respiratory illnesses tend to spike in the fall and winter months. Most people who suffer from cold and flu can expect coughing, congestion, sore throat or mild fever. But what does it mean if you experience a cold and ear pain simultaneously, or even a combination of flu and ear infection?

Ear discomfort might not be as common as other cold and flu symptoms, but it can be just as serious and even a precursor to more severe complications. Keep reading to learn how to recognize, treat and prevent ear-related symptoms related to a cold or the flu.

Why do your ears hurt when you have a cold?

The common cold is a virus affecting the nose and throat. But the virus that causes your illness might not limit itself to your upper respiratory tract—you could end up with ear-related issues, from soreness to fluid in the ear from cold and more.

The eustachian tube connects your middle ear to the back of your throat. It is vital in draining fluid and equalizing the pressure within the ear. During a cold, inflammation and mucus build-up can cause the eustachian tube to become blocked, leading to ear congestion

You might wonder how to unclog ears from congestion. Ear congestion typically resolves on its own after the virus has run its course. If it does not, or if it becomes painful, you might seek medical intervention in the form of:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen can help relieve inflammation and allow for better drainage.
  • Antibiotics: If the congestion has led to an infection, you might need antibiotics. 

Simple ear congestion can escalate into a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media. This happens when the virus that caused your cold migrates from your nose or throat into the ear through the eustachian tube. Middle ear infection symptoms can include:

Treating otitis media is important. If left untreated, middle ear infections can lead to serious complications, including hearing loss. Under direction from your healthcare provider, you might consider the following remedies:

  • Rest: Your body needs time and strength to fend off the virus.
  • Saltwater gargle: Saltwater can help reduce inflammation, but do not put saltwater in your ear. Instead, add a teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water, stir to dissolve the salt and gargle with the solution.  
  • Antibiotics. If your middle ear infection symptoms do not resolve on their own, your doctor might recommend antibiotics.

When a cold persists, the mucus build-up within your sinuses can pave the way for a sinus infection, also called infectious sinusitis. This can lead to discomfort in your head and nasal area and even cause sinus infections and ear pain.  

What helps ear pain from sinus infection varies depending on the severity and type of infection. Some treatment options include:   

  • Antibiotics
  • Nasal decongestant spray
  • Antihistamines
  • Topical corticosteroids
  • Nasal saline washes
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Prevention is key

Never underestimate the importance of ear care. Your hearing might depend on it.

Cold and tinnitus

Can a cold cause tinnitus? Tinnitus is characterized by ringing, hissing or buzzing in the ears. You might notice new or increased tinnitus after a particularly nasty cold. This might be caused by increased pressure in your ears that can accompany a cold or sinus infection. If you continue to experience tinnitus after a cold, contact your doctor. 

Cold and temporary hearing loss

Ear congestion during a cold can cause muffled or reduced hearing. If congestion leads to an ear infection, you might experience temporary hearing loss. Typically, hearing loss from cold will resolve as the virus clears your system. Treat hearing loss from cold with:

  • Decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • Saltwater gargle
  • Warm compress

Cold and labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis is inflammation of the inner ear and the nerves that connect it to the brain. A viral infection, including a cold, can trigger it. The condition can cause dizziness, nausea and hearing loss, which resolves after a few weeks. Rest, avoid sudden movements and ask your doctor about medications to manage nausea. If symptoms of labyrinthitis after a cold persist, consult with your healthcare provider.  

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Cold and itchy ear

Another common response to the inflammation that accompanies a cold is itchy ears. Use over-the-counter ear drops to relieve symptoms of itchy ears with a cold. Never insert anything in your ear. 

Cold and ear bleeding

When your ear is infected, fluid and pus can build up and cause the eardrum to rupture. This might lead to bleeding or drainage from the ear. Keep the ear dry and avoid putting any objects in your ear. If bleeding or drainage from the ear after a cold happens or is accompanied by changes in hearing, contact a medical provider immediately.

Cold and fluid in the ears

Congestion from a cold can block the Eustachian tubes, causing fluid to build up in the ear. Fluid in ear symptoms include a feeling of fullness, ringing or popping sounds, difficulty hearing or balance issues. 

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Home remedies for fluid in the ear due to a cold

There are several home remedies to address pain or discomfort from fluid in the ears. 

Swallowing or yawning can open Eustachian tubes briefly, allowing in air and equalizing pressure. 

Chewing gum works in the same way as yawning to open Eustachian tubes. 

To pop your ears, pinch your nostrils shut and gently blow out with your mouth closed. This can equalize pressure and offer relief. 

As with chewing or swallowing, sucking a hard candy or lozenge helps to open your Eustachian tubes, allowing for pressure equalization. 

To soothe ear pain, wrap a heat or ice pack in a clean towel and gently hold it to the affected ear. 

If pain is primarily in one ear, elevate the affected ear and sleep on the opposite side to allow the infection to drain out. 

If your earache is the result of a sinus infection, try a nasal saline rinse to clear the sinuses. Consult with your doctor before trying a sinus rinse for ear pain. For best results:

  • Keep your mouth open
  • Avoid holding your breath
  • Gently blow your nose after rinsing

Drink plenty of water to help the mucous inside your ear and stay hydrated. 

Sleep is vital in helping your body fight off a cold and its symptoms. 

Medical treatments for fluid in the ear due to cold

General home remedies like rest or warm compresses can help, but in some cases, they fall short. Consider medications for a more targeted approach to fluid-in-ear treatment. 

OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help reduce pressure and ear pain. Especially when treating children, follow dosage guidelines on the packaging and always consult a doctor before giving OTC medication to children under 6 months.

These medications can reduce swelling in the sinuses, alleviating the clogged ear feeling. Children under 4 should not use OTC decongestants. Consult with your doctor before offering to children over the age of 4.  

Ear drops might help relieve pain or dry out your ears, but consult a doctor before using OTC drops. 

If your symptoms persist or are particularly severe, your doctor might recommend antibiotics in the form of drops or oral medication. 
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Considerations when treating fluid in the ear from cold

When treating fluid in the ear from cold or more severe complications like cold and ear pain or flu and ear infection, especially in children, consider the following:

  • Children under 4 shouldn’t be given cold medicine.
  • Consult a doctor before offering OTC medication to children under 6 months.
  • Use homeopathic remedies with caution. Essential oils like garlic, tea tree or olive oil pop up as solutions online but have not been shown to improve ear infections.
  • Never insert objects into the ear, including cotton swabs.  

Most cold and ear pain will resolve once the virus has cleared your system. If symptoms persist, be sure to consult with your doctor for the best course of treatment. 

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