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Earaches and Their Causes

written by: Kathy Foust • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/11/2009

It's the child holding their ear crying in the middle of the night. The adult who is trying to dispel that piercing pain. It's the earache. Read this article to find out what causes earaches and how they can best be treated.

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    What is an Earache?

    You may have started out with a simple cold. A bit of a stuffy nose, some sneezing and coughing, but now there is a piercing pain in your ear. On top of everything else, do you have an ear infection?

    Not every earache means that you have an ear infection, but every ear infection is accompanied by an earache. The earache is recognized by what is usually a piercing pain in the inside of the ear. These are quite common in young children. The most feasible explanation for this is that the canals inside the ears of children are very short in comparison to those of adults. So, what causes earaches?

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    What Causes Earaches?

    When sound travels down the ear canal, it creates a vibration on the ear drum. This creates the sounds we hear. Behind the eardrum is a canal called the eustachian tube. This tube connects the ear to the back of the nose. It's basically the drainage system for the ear. Sometimes this tube is inflamed by bacteria or a virus. This can be caused by bacteria or a virus directly related to the ear, or because of a blockage of the tube.

    When the tube fills up, it may swell. The areas inside the ear are so delicate that the least bit if swelling can cause the eardrum to be under increased pressure. When this happens, the ear begins to hurt. The pain can sometimes turn into an ear infection or can be the result of an ear infection.

    The tube may also be blocked. This usually happens when the adenoids swell or there is another infection present in the body, or even because of allergies. Either way, when the tube becomes blocked, the fluid builds up or the tube swells and causes pain.

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    The Difference Between an Earache and an Ear Infection

    An earache may be a sign of an actual infection, but is not always an ear infection. In fact, it may be an indication of an infections elsewhere, such as your sinuses. If this seems odd to you, consider a cut on your arm. It may be tender, but that doesn't mean it's infected.

    Instead of clearing itself up in the natural order of things, you may need to seek medical treatment. You know it is an actual ear infection when it is accompanied by a fever. However, if your child is complaining of an earache or pulling at their ears, see a doctor at once so that they can assess whether the child has an actual infection and needs to be put on antibiotics.

    Once an ear infection clears up, there may be liquid remaining in the tubes. This can cause serious problems in the hearing of the child and can even lead to eventual hearing loss. Be sure to follow up with a doctor to make sure everything about the infection has cleared up.

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    Treatments for Earaches and Ear Infections


    Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics prescribed by doctors.


    Viral infections are caused by a virus and must simply run their course.


    • For pain relief, take whatever over the counter pain reliever that works for you, but remember that children should NEVER be given aspirin. It can be very dangerous to them!
    • You can also place a warm heating pad or warm cloth over the ear to ease the pain. There are various theories on why this works. One of them is that the heat softens whatever is blocking the canal and helps it to drain.
    • There are over the counter as well as prescribed drops for earaches. Normally these drops need to be heated by running the bottle under warm water before putting any drops in the ears.

    Now that you know more about earaches and what causes earaches, you are better equipped to deal with and prevent them. For instance, avoiding others that have some type of illness or infection can lower your risk of ear infections. Keeping your ears clean also helps to be sure that the tubes are clear and will assist you in preventing earaches.

    References: Family