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Learn more about earache: introduction

Earache and ear pain is common, particularly in young children. It can be painful but isn't usually a sign of anything serious.

How long earache lasts

It depends on what's causing it. Most earaches in children are caused by an ear infection, which usually start to improve after a few days.

Spotting earache in babies and young children

A young child might have earache if they:

  • rub or pull their ear
  • don't react to some sounds
  • have a temperature of 38C or above
  • are irritable or restless
  • are off their food
  • keep losing their balance

Earache and ear pain can affect one or both ears.

How to treat earache yourself

There are some things you can do to help relieve earache and ear pain.

Do

  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 shouldn't take aspirin)
  • place a warm or cold flannel on the ear

Don't

  • put anything inside your ear, such as cotton buds
  • try to remove earwax
  • let water get inside your ear

A pharmacist can help with earaches

A pharmacist might be able to tell you:

  • what else you can do to treat earache yourself
  • if you can buy anything to help – for example, eardrops
  • if you need to see a GP

Find your nearest pharmacy

See a GP if you or your child has:

  • a very high temperature or feels hot and shivery
  • swelling around the ear
  • earache in both ears
  • fluid coming from the ear
  • something stuck in the ear
  • an earache for more than 3 days
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • a severe sore throat or vomiting

If you can't get an appointment, contact 111 or go to a local walk-in centre.

Find your nearest walk-in centre

What causes earache and pain

Earache and pain can be caused by many things, but sometimes it isn't known what. Here are some of the most common causes:

Symptoms Possible condition
Ear pain with toothache children teething, dental abscess
Ear pain with change in hearing glue ear, earwax build-up, an object stuck in the ear (do not try to remove it yourself – see your GP), perforated eardrum – particularly after a loud noise or accident
Ear pain with pain when swallowing sore throat, tonsillitis, quinsy – a complication of tonsillitis
Ear pain with a fever ear infection, flu, cold
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Learn more about earache: outer ear infection

Ear infections are very common, particularly in children. See a GP if they don't settle in a couple of days.

Check if it's an ear infection

The symptoms of an ear infection usually start quickly and include:

  • pain inside the ear
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • being sick
  • a lack of energy
  • difficulty hearing
  • discharge running out of the ear
  • feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
  • itching and irritation in and around the ear
  • scaly skin in and around the ear

Young children and babies with an ear infection may also:

  • rub or pull their ear
  • not react to some sounds
  • be irritable or restless
  • be off their food
  • keep losing their balance
Differences between inner ear infection and outer ear infection
Inner ear infection (otitis media) Outer ear infection (otitis externa)
Usually affects children Usually affects adults aged 45 to 75
Caused by viruses like colds and flu Caused by something irritating the ear canal, such as eczema, water or wearing ear plugs
Affects the inner ear (the tube that runs behind the eardrum to the back of the nose – Eustachian tube) Affects the ear canal (the tube between the outer ear and the eardrum)

How to treat an ear infection yourself

Most ear infections pass in 2 or 3 days, depending on what's causing it.

To help relieve any pain and discomfort from an ear infection:

Do

  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 shouldn't take aspirin)
  • place a warm or cold flannel on the ear
  • remove any discharge by wiping the ear with cotton wool

Don't

  • put anything inside your ear to remove earwax, such as cotton buds or your finger
  • let water or shampoo get in your ear

A pharmacist can help with an ear infection

Speak to a pharmacist if you think you have an outer ear infection. They can recommend acidic ear drops to help stop bacteria or fungus spreading.

Find a pharmacy

See a GP if you or your child have:

  • a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • a severe earache for more than 3 days
  • swelling around the ear
  • pus coming from the ear
  • something stuck in the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • other symptoms, like vomiting, a severe sore throat or dizziness
  • regular ear infections
  • a long-term medical condition – such as diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • a weakened immune system – because of chemotherapy, for example

Book a GP appointment online

What happens at your appointment

Your GP will often use a small light (an otoscope) to look into the ear.

Some otoscopes blow a small puff of air into the ear. This checks for blockages, which could be a sign of an infection.

Treatment from your GP

Your GP may prescribe medicine for your ear infection, depending on what's caused it.

Inner ear infections

Antibiotics aren't always recommended for inner ear infections as they often clear up on their own. They might be prescribed if:

  • an ear infection doesn't get better
  • you or your child has an illness that means there's a risk of complications, such as cystic fibrosis

They may also be prescribed if your child is less than 2 years old.

Outer ear infections

Your GP might prescribe:

  • antibiotic ear drops – to treat a bacterial infection
  • steroid ear drops – to bring down swelling
  • antifungal ear drops – to treat a fungal infection
  • antibiotic tablets – if your bacterial infection is severe

If you have a spot or boil in your ear, your GP may pierce it with a needle to drain the pus.

Ear drops may not work if they're not used correctly.

How to use ear drops
  1. Remove any visible discharge or earwax using cotton wool.
  2. Hold the bottle in your hand to warm it – cold ear drops can make you feel dizzy.
  3. Lie on your side with the affected ear facing up to put the drops in.
  4. Gently pull and push your ear to work the drops in.
  5. Stay lying down for 5 minutes so the drops don't come out.

Preventing ear infections

You can't always prevent ear infections, particularly inner ear infections caused by colds and flu.

To help avoid inner ear infections:

  • make sure your child is up to date with vaccinations
  • keep your child away from smoky environments
  • try not to give your child a dummy after they're 6 months old

To help avoid outer ear infections:

  • don't stick cotton wool buds or your fingers in your ears
  • use ear plugs or a swimming hat over your ears when you swim
  • try to avoid water or shampoo getting into your ears when you have a shower or bath
  • treat conditions that affect your ears, such as eczema or an allergy to hearing aids
Content supplied by NHS Choices

Learn more about earache: earwax

Earwax normally just falls out on its own. When it's blocking your ears, a pharmacist can help.

How you can treat earwax build-up yourself

Don't use your fingers or any objects like cotton buds to remove earwax. This will push it in and make it worse.

Earwax usually falls out on its own. If it doesn't and blocks your ear, put 2 to 3 drops of olive or almond oil in your ear twice a day for a few days.

Over 2 weeks lumps of earwax should fall out of your ear, especially at night when you're lying down.

There's no evidence that ear candles or ear vacuums get rid of earwax.

A pharmacist can help with earwax build-up

Speak to a pharmacist about earwax build-up. They can give advice and suggest treatments.

They might recommend chemical drops to dissolve the earwax. The earwax should fall out on its own or dissolve after about a week.

Don't use drops if you have a hole in your eardrum (a perforated eardrum).

Find a pharmacy

See a nurse at your GP practice if:

  • your ear hasn't cleared after 5 days
  • your ear is badly blocked and you can't hear anything (you can get an infection if it isn't cleared)

Not all GP practices remove earwax

Some can:

  • flush the wax out with water (ear irrigation)
  • suck the wax out (microsuction)

These treatments are usually painless. You might have to pay to have them done privately.

Preventing earwax build-up

You can't prevent earwax. It's there to protect your ears from dirt and germs.

But you can keep using ear drops to soften the wax. This will help it fall out on its own and should prevent blocked ears.

Causes of earwax

You might have earwax build-up because:

  • you just have more wax in your ears – some people do naturally
  • you have hairy or narrow canals (the tubes that link the eardrum and outer ear)
  • of your age – wax gets harder and more difficult to fall out
  • of hearing aids, earplugs and other things you put in your ear – these can push the wax further in

How to tell if your ear is blocked with earwax

You can have:

  • earache
  • difficulty hearing
  • itchiness
  • dizziness
  • an ear infection
  • sounds such as high-pitched tones coming from inside the ear (tinnitus)

Once the earwax is removed, these symptoms usually improve. If they don't, see the nurse at your GP practice.

Content supplied by NHS Choices