What Can Sore Ears Mean? Ear Pain Causes

Medically Reviewed on 11/4/2022
What Can Sore Ears Mean
Sore ears can indicate the presence of an infection, allergy, ruptured eardrum, or other conditions

Sore ears or ear pain has a wide range of causes, including infections, allergies, ruptured eardrums, or sudden air pressure changes. 

Sometimes, ear pain can be the result of irritation due to tight headwear, uncomfortable headphones, sleeping on a hard surface, ear piercings, clenching or grinding the teeth, or getting something stuck in the ears.

What causes sore ears?

The ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. Air pressure in the middle ear is balanced by the eustachian tubes, which also allow mucus to pass from the middle ear to the throat. If the eustachian tube is blocked, it can cause fluid to accumulate and lead to abnormal eardrum pressure or an ear infection.

Potential causes of ear pain include:

Other potential factors include:

  • Ear canal irritation from cotton-tipped swabs
  • Soap or shampoo residue in the ear

What symptoms are associated with sore ears?

Ear pain may be mild, dull, throbbing, or severe and accompanied by a burning sensation or a feeling of fullness. One or both ears may be affected. The pain may be continuous or intermittent. Other signs and symptoms include:

Infants and young children may exhibit the following signs and symptoms of an earache:

  • Rubbing or pulling the ear
  • Fever (temperature of 100.4 F [38 C] or higher)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fluid discharge from the ear
  • Not reacting to certain sounds
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Crying more than usual
  • Lack of interest in food

How is ear pain diagnosed?

If your ear pain is severe or is accompanied by other symptoms, consult your doctor.

An ENT specialist will examine your ears, nose, and throat in addition to checking for inflammation and fluid buildup behind the eardrum using an otoscope. An otoscope is a lighted instrument that helps examine the ears and assess the movements of the eardrum. 

A specialist can also perform a hearing test.

How is ear pain treated?

Treatment of ear pain depends on the cause of the problem. Medications and surgery are two common treatment options.


Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) can help ease ear pain. 

  • Ear drops may also be prescribed to relieve pain. Do not use it without consulting a doctor, as they can cause harm if there is a hole or perforation in the eardrum. 
  • Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is a bacterial infection. 


  • Children who frequently get ear infections may require surgery, in which a tiny tube is placed into the eardrums to stop fluid from accumulating. Tubes may be placed for the short or long term. 
  • Surgery may also be needed to treat certain chronic conditions, such as chronic suppurative otitis media.

In some cases, an earache can be caused by the accumulation of earwax in the ear canal. However, never insert anything into the ear, not even a cotton swab, to remove the earwax. Doing so will only push the wax deeper into the ear rather than remove it. 

What are home remedies for earache?

If you have an earache, you can try these remedies to relieve pain and soreness:

  • Applying a cold compress to the outer ear for 20 minutes can ease the pain.
  • Chewing gum may ease the discomfort and pressure associated with an ear infection (this should be avoided in toddlers due to the risk of choking)
  • Sitting up rather than lying down can help relieve middle ear pressure.
  • If the eardrum has not ruptured, you can relieve pain with over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops. Children should not be given aspirin.

The following measures can help you prevent ear pain from occurring:

  • Avoid putting things in your ears
  • After showering or swimming, thoroughly dry your ears
  • Manage allergies by avoiding triggers and taking appropriate precautions
  • Avoid smoking, including secondhand smoke
Medically Reviewed on 11/4/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Earache (Ear Pain, Otalgia) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22710-ear-ache-ear-pain

Why Does My Ear Hurt? https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/ear-infection/why-does-ear-hurt

Earache https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/earache

Earache https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/symptoms/earache

Ear Pain in Children https://www.mottchildren.org/posts/your-child/ear-pain-children