Dr Tendai Zuze Matters of Health
A painful ear can be very distressing and earache is one of the commonest reasons why you might visit, or take your child to the doctor’s. Earache is more common in children than it is in adults.
The pain from earache can be constant or it may come and go. It can feel like a burning sensation or a sharp, or dull, pain. It can affect both ears at once or just one ear.
Just as the pain from earache affects people in different ways, there are a variety of causes of earache. Some of them affect the ear itself; others are from conditions affecting areas close to the ears.
Common reasons for earache include:
Fluid building up deep inside the eardrum. Known as glue ear, this affects children more than adults
Infection of the ear canal outside the eardrum (otitis externa)
A boil or infected hair follicle in the ear canal
Eczema in the ear canal ( seborrhoeic dermatitis)
Injury in the ear canal from objects poked inside, such as cotton buds or sharp objects
Blockages in the ear from plugs of earwax or objects pushed in which have become stuck
Throat infections (including tonsillitis) and colds
Jaw pain, known as temporomandibular joint pain
Dental abscess in the mouth or other tooth pain, such as wisdom teeth problems
Trigeminal neuralgia or facial nerve pain
As well as ear pain, earache from an ear infection can be especially troublesome for children and babies.
Babies may appear hot and irritable
Children may pull, tug or rub an ear
A high temperature — over 38C
Poor feeding in babies; loss of appetite in children
Sleep problems and restlessness at night
Coughing and runny nose
Not hearing as well as normal
If your child has the above and develops a stiff neck,appears very tired, responds poorly or cannot be consoled they may have meningitis and you need to seek urgent medical attention.
Earache is usually treatable and unlikely to lead to long-term problems. Treatment may include over-the-counter age appropriate painkillers , such as paracetamol or brufen for pain and fever as well as antibiotics in some cases.
Holding a cold towel to the painful ear for around 20 minutes may be useful. However, if an ear infection is suspected, avoid getting the inside of the ear wet.
Do not put cooking oil inside a painful or infected ear, this will make it worse! Don’t use ear-drops or olive oil if the eardrum has burst.
If a child has long-term earache or repeated ear infections small tubes called grommets may be recommended by a doctor to help keep the ear free of fluid and infection.
Left untreated, a middle ear infection can have long-term effects that include the following:
Inner ear infection
Scarring of the eardrum
Infection of the skull behind the ear
Meningitis (infection in the tissues around the brain and spinal cord
Speech development problems in children
To prevent earache, the following might be useful:
Don’t poke ear buds or anything else into the ear to try to remove wax.
Protect children from colds, especially during their first year of life. Most ear infections start with colds.
Ear infections can occur after flu. Adults and children in at-risk groups could consider an annual flu jab.
Avoid contact with second-hand tobacco smoke, which increases the frequency and severity of ear infections.
Control allergies. Inflammation caused by allergies is a contributing factor of ear infection.
Give babies the best start in life with breastfeeding if possible. Antibodies in breast milk may reduce the rate of ear infections
If bottle feeds are given make sure baby is at an angle. Being horizontal for feeds can allow fluid to get into tubes in the ears.
Some research suggests dummy use may increase the risk of ear infections in babies who are prone to ear problems.
Adenoids may contribute to ear infections and may need to be checked by a specialist.
If you are having trouble with earache, please visit your doctor.