Earaches are a painful annoyance for anyone who has them. Knowing how to get rid of an earache properly can help shorten its duration and speed up relief.
Earache is a common problem in adults and children—that sharp, dull, or burning pain in one or both ears. When it strikes, you know it’s an earache. About 80 percent of children will develop a painful ear infection before the age of 3, while many adults have earaches caused by sore throats, jaw issues, or even pressure from flying. Earaches can result in steady pain or pain that comes and goes.
Ear pain is no fun, regardless of the cause. Fortunately, earaches are not often serious medical conditions. Better yet, there are many ways to solve the problem, quickly relieve the pain and start feeling much better soon.
Healthcare providers are well-versed in treating ear troubles. In fact, earaches and infections are some of the most common reasons children visit the doctor. There are many causes of sore ears—both for kids and adults. The ear itself might be causing the pain, often due to an outer or middle ear infection. Other times, various medical conditions lead to ear pain, such as a sinus infection, infected tooth, or gastric reflux.
Whether it’s at home or under the guidance of a medical professional, there are many ways to find earache relief.
Some of the quickest ways to address ear pain include over-the-counter ear drops, as long as the eardrum has not ruptured. Medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) also help with immediate relief for ear pain; check with your medical provider about doses for different ages.
Remember that children under 3 years old must not take aspirin. Similarly, decongestants, antihistamines for allergies, or cold medicine can ease earaches.
When clinicians diagnose children’s earaches as ear infections, they will also advise you on the best course of treatment. The use of antibiotics depends on the child’s age, the severity of the infection and how often they get ear infections. If antibiotics are prescribed, the patient’s pain usually starts to subside within about 24 hours of starting the medication.
Physicians prescribe antibiotics to babies under 6 months because their immune systems aren’t fully developed. Many doctors recommend waiting, observing, and treating pain with over-the-counter medication when children are over 6 months, especially when the ear infection isn’t severe. If symptoms do not improve in two to three days, then they might prescribe antibiotics.
With adults, as with children, antibiotics are often used to clear up ear infections (or other infections) that cause earache. The course of treatment and specific drugs will depend on each person’s unique case and medical history. Whatever the course of medication is prescribed, finish the entire course of medication. Do not stop because the pain has subsided, your physician wants to make sure that the cause is completely eliminated from your system.
When other issues lead to earache, the remedies are determined by the cause. For a tooth-related issue that’s causing ear pain, your dentist might need to fill a cavity or do a root canal. TMJ disorders or bruxism, or teeth grinding, might require longer-term solutions that help you correct the habit or anatomical issue.
The range of possible treatments makes it important to see a doctor if your earache persists for more than a few days. Without a professional diagnosis, it’s hard to determine the most effective earache remedy.
The effectiveness of home remedies for earache is often anecdotal, but they are still worth a try as you look for relief. Some people swear by sleeping in an upright position to relieve ear pressure. A warm or cold compress like a damp washcloth (wrung out to reduce the risk of getting water in the ear) can be soothing.
Hold the washcloth to the aching ear for up to 20 minutes, repeating throughout the day if necessary. A heating pad or hot water bottle placed over the ear can provide temporary relief.
Another simple way to reduce inflammation due to a sore throat or tonsilitis—and relieve pain—is a saltwater gargle. Add one teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water and gargle for a couple of minutes.
The key factor in when to see a doctor for an earache is how long it has lasted. If it’s been more than two or three days with no improvement, it’s time to go in for an exam. Other signs that you should visit a doctor are:
It might sound strange, but if severe pain suddenly stops, that might signal a ruptured eardrum from an ear infection. And if new symptoms emerge, like dizziness, headache, weakness in facial muscles, or swelling around the ear, go see your physician as soon as possible.
A nagging earache can be a sign that you have an underlying medical condition that needs treatment. And in children, repeat or stubborn ear infections can affect their hearing over the long term. So, when in doubt, get it checked.