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Ear Pain Infections

Ear Pain and Infection Symptoms and Causes

Ear pain can be sharp, dull or burning, and can occur in one or both ears. The pain may be acute (temporary) or chronic (constant or frequent). The source of ear pain can be an infection or condition such as:

  • Otitis media — a middle ear infection
  • Mastoiditis — an infection of the mastoid bone of the skull, located just behind the outside ear
  • Enlarged lymph node — sudden swelling of lymph nodes in the ear area are usually caused by infection or injury. Gradual swelling could have a more serious cause
  • Ruptured eardrum — An ear infection causes pus or fluid to build up behind the eardrum and creates a hole or rupture in the ear drum, more often in children. The eardrum often heals itself in two months, and any hearing loss is usually temporary
  • Otitis externa — an inflammation of the outer ear and ear canal
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome — problems with the jaw joint (TMJ) can cause pain in the head and neck areas
  • Blocked eustachian tube — when fluid builds up in the middle ear, it can cause dizziness, ache, pain and feeling of fullness and lead to a condition called barotrauma
  • Barotrauma — discomfort and possible damage in the ear due to pressure differences between the inside and outside of the eardrum
  • Serous otitis — when fluid collects in the middle ear as a result of an infection or allergies
  • Ceruminosis — an excessive buildup of earwax (cerumen) that can form a plug that blocks sound to the inner ear. Hearing is restored when the earwax is removed

Ear Pain and Infection Symptoms:

The symptoms of ear infections may include:

  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Fussiness
  • Increased crying
  • Irritability

Many children will have temporary and minor hearing loss during, and right after, an ear infection. Permanent hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number of ear infections.

Ear Pain and Infections Causes:

Ear pain in children is often caused by a buildup of fluid and pressure in the middle ear behind the eardrum. The middle ear is connected to the nasal passages by a short narrow tube, the eustachian tube. The eustachian tube allows normal fluids to drain out of the middle ear, and helps keep the pressure in your ear equalized.

A cold or allergy can block the eustachian tube as a result of inflammation and the buildup of secretions. This is especially likely in small children's shorter and more horizontal eustachian tubes. Closing of the eustachian tube prevents the normal flow of fluid from the middle ear. The fluid begins to build up, which can cause stuffiness, pain, hearing loss, and an ear infection.

Ear pain in adults is less likely to be from an ear infection, but instead may actually be coming from the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), your teeth, throat, or other locations. This is called "referred" pain.

    Causes of ear pain include:
  • Arthritis of the jaw
  • Ear infection
    • Middle ear infection — acute (short and severe episode)
    • Middle ear infection — chronic (does not go away or recurs)
    • Outer ear (canal) infection — acute
    • Outer ear (canal) infection — chronic
    • Outer ear (canal) infection — malignant
  • Ear injury from pressure changes (from high altitudes and other causes)
  • Object stuck in the ear or severely impacted ear wax
  • Ruptured or perforated eardrum
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat with referred pain to the ears
  • Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)—a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and muscles that control jaw movement
  • Tooth infection

Ear pain in a child or infant is not always from infection. Other causes include:

  • Ear canal irritation from cotton-tipped swabs
  • Soap or shampoo staying in the ear
  • Water from bathing