When to See a Doctor for Earache

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Young Hispanic boy having ear checked by older female doctor
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If you’re looking for relief from an earache, how do you know whether to treat it at home or see a doctor? Though earaches are common in children, they can also affect adults, and the recommendations are different depending on age. Here’s when earache home remedies might work and when it’s time to make an appointment with your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

Common Causes of Earache

Children’s earaches often affect the middle ear as the result of an infection (middle ear infection, or otitis media), but in adults, ear pain may affect any of the three parts of the ear—the inner, middle or outer ear.

Typical causes of earache in adults include:

  • Sinus infection

  • Infection of the Eustachian tubes, which lead from the ear to the throat

  • Ear wax accumulation

  • Foreign bodies, such as ear swabs that damage the ear

  • Injury to the ear from a blow or loud noises

  • Infection of the outer ear (swimmer’s ear)

 
In some cases, there may be a more serious underlying cause of ear pain in adults, including arthritis or another disorder of the jaw, an infected tooth, or strep throat. When ear pain is from something other than an ear infection, it is ‘referred pain.’

Earache Treatment at Home

If your earache is associated with a headache, swimmer’s ear (outer ear pain from infection), air pressure changes from changes in altitude, or a cold, you may not need to see a doctor. Try a cold compress, over-the-counter ear drops, or pain relievers—and avoid lying down. Your earache may go away on its own, but keep track of how long and how much your ear has been hurting so you can decide if it’s time to call your doctor.

 

When to See a Doctor for Earache

To avoid hearing loss or the spread of infection, adults should seek medical attention for themselves or their child if an earache lasts more than a day or two, or if you have any of the following:

  • Hearing loss or ringing in your ears

  • Dizziness

  • Fever, sore throat, or flu-like symptoms (especially in children)

  • Discharge or bleeding from the ear

  • Pain when you pull on your earlobe or blow your nose

  • Pain due to exposure to loud noises, such as industrial noise or a concert

  • Severe pain that stops suddenly, which may be due to a ruptured eardrum

 
There are times when symptoms associated with earache, whether in an adult or child, require immediate medical care in an emergency department (call 911 for help if necessary):

  • Stiff neck

  • Drowsiness or lack of alertness

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • High fever (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Recent blow to the ear or head (call 911)

  • In children, continued crying and severe distress

Who to See for Earache

If you have a cold or other common infection that may be causing your earache, see your primary care physician, who can clean your ear and prescribe antibiotic drops. If your earache does not get better, your doctor may send you to an ENT—an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist).

Earaches are common and may go away on their own. If they persist, consult your doctor, who can diagnose and treat you or your child’s earache and avoid complications, such as ear damage, hearing loss, or spread of infection.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 5
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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