Earaches can be mild or very painful. They are a sign that something is wrong. The most common cause of an earache is plugged eustachian tubes. These tubes go from the back of the throat to your middle ear. When the eustachian tube gets block, fluid gathers, causing pain. Things that make this happen include an infection of the middle ear, colds, sinus infections, and allergies. Other things that can cause ear pain include changes in air pressure in a plane, something stuck in the ear, too much ear wax, tooth problems, and ear injuries.

Very bad ear pain should be treated by a doctor. Treatment will depend on its cause. Most often this includes pain relievers, antibiotics, (if infection is involved), methods to dry up or clear the blocked ear canal, and whatever else is necessary to treat the source of the pain. You can, however, use self-care procedures if ear pain is mild and produces no other symptoms. One example is with a mild case of “swimmers ear” which affects the outer ear.


Much can be done to prevent earaches. Heed the old saying, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow into your ear”. This includes cotton-tipped swabs, bobby pins, your fingers, etc. Doing so could damage the delicate skin that lines the ear canal or your eardrum. When you blow your nose, do so gently. Don’t smoke. Smoking and second hand smoke can increase the risk of infection for you and persons around you, especially if they are prone to ear infections.

Self-Care Procedures

To reduce pain:

  • Place a warm washcloth or heating pad (set on low, adults only) next to the ear. Some health professionals recommend putting an ice bag or ice in a wet washcloth over the painful ear for 20 minutes.
  • Take acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium. [Note: Do not give aspirin or any medication containing salicylates to anyone 19 years of age or younger,m unless directed by a physician, due to its association with Reye’s Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.]

To open up the eustachian tubes and help them drain:

  • Sit up.
  • Prop your head up when you sleep.
  • Yawn. (This helps move the muscles that open the eustachian tubes.) It can help even more if you hold your nose closed when you yawn.
  • Hold a hair dryer on a low, warm setting 10 – 20 inches from your ear, aiming the warm aire into your aching ear. (Don’t do this if the noise from your hair dryer, even at a low setting, hurts your ears). Use caution with children.
  • Chew gum or suck on hard candy. (This is especially helpful during pressure changes that take place during air travel but can also be useful during the middle of the night if you wake up with ear pain.)(Do not give to children under 6).
  • Stay awake during take-offs and landings when travelling by air.
  • Take an oral decongestant such as Sudafed which can dry up the fluid in the ear. Decongestant nasal sprays can be used, but only for up to three days. Take a decongestant:

    • At the first sign of a cold if you have gotten ear infections after previous colds.
    • One hour before you land when you travel by air if you have a cold or know your sinuses are going to block up.

  • Take a steamy shower.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer, especially at night.
  • Drink plenty of cool water.
  • Gently, but firmly, blow through your nose while holding both nostrils closed until you hear a pop. This will help reduce ear pressure in the middle ear. You can do this several times a day.
  • Feed a baby their bottle in an upright position, not lying down.

To treat a mild case of swimmers ear: The goal is to clean and dry the ear outer canal without doing further damage to the top layer of skin. What you can do:

  • Shake your head to expel trapped water after swimming or showering.
  • Dry the ear canal by:

    • Using a hair dryer (set on low or warm) 10 – 20 inches away from the ear,
    • Taking a clean facial tissue, do the following: Twist each corner into a tip and gently place each tip into the ear canal for 10 seconds. Repeat with the other ear using a new tissue.

  • Use an over-the-counter product such as Swim-Ear. Drop it into the ears to fight infection and aid in drying out the ear canal. Follow package directions.
  • Do not remove ear wax. This coats the ear canal and protects it from moisture.
  • Wear wax or silicone ear plugs that can be softened and shaped to fit your ears. They are available at most drug stores. For prolonged use, you can have ear plugs custom made from most audiologists (hearing specialists) and some hearing aid dealers.
  • Wearing a bathing cap to help keep water from getting into the ears.
  • Don’t swim in dirty water.
  • Swim on the surface of the water instead of underneath the water.

Questions to Ask

Are these present in your infant or small child?
  • Stiff neck
  • Unresponsiveness or excessive sensitivity to loud noises, a bell, or the sound of your voice
  • Yes: Seek Emergency Care

    Did the pain start after a blow to the ear or recent head trauma?
    Yes: Seek Emergency Care

    Are any of these things present in an infant or small child especially following an upper respiratory infection, a cold, air travel, or in a child with a history of ear problems?
  • Constant pulling, touching, or tugging at one or both ears
  • Fever
  • Constant crying despite being comforted
  • Ear or ears that are hot and sensitive to the touch
  • Unresponsiveness to loud noises, a bell, or to the sound of your voice
  • Inability to turn his/her head toward a sound source (for a child over 8 months)
  • Irritability and sleeplessness especially at night or when lying down
  • Yes: See Doctor

    With the earache, do you also have hearing loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness, or nausea?
    Yes: See Doctor

    Are there signs of infection such as:
  • Fever (especially 102 F or higher)
  • Sticky, green, or bloody discharge
  • Severe ear pain and/or increased pain when wiggling the ear lobe
  • Yes: See Doctor

    Is the earache persistent and more than mild and does it occur after:
  • A mild ear injury
  • Hard or repeated nose blowings
  • Sticking an object of any kind in the ear
  • A cold, sinus, or upper respiratory infection
  • Swimming, and is it extremely painful when the earlobe is wiggled or touched
  • Exposure to extremely loud noises (Examples: rock concerts, heavy machinery)
  • Yes: See Doctor

    Has a small object been stuck in the ear that cannot be easily removed or has an insect gotten in the ear that cannot safely be removed?
    Yes: See Doctor

    Does the ear ache occur with jaw pain, headache, and or clicking sound when opening and closing the mouth or putting pressure on the jaw joint?
    Yes: See Doctor
    Provide Self-Care

    Healthy Self: The Guide to Self-Care and Wise Consumerism

    © American Institute for Preventive Medicine

    Connection error. Connection fail between instagram and your server. Please try again
    Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

    Explore Wellness in 2021