Read below about ear canal pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your ear canal pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

This symptom can also be referred to as:
Inner ear pain

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Ear Canal Pain Symptoms

Your ear canal is about one inch long and runs from your eardrum to the outer opening of your ear. It tends to be a common location for painful infection, especially in young children and in swimmers. However, the condition can be readily treated by your doctor, and there are several things you can do to keep it from happening again.

Ear pain is also called otalgia. An infection of your ear canal is called otitis externa or swimmer's ear.

Ear canal pain characteristics:

  • Moderate to severe pain just inside your ear.
  • Itching within your ear that may intensify if you pull on the outside of your ear.
  • Feeling that your ear is blocked, full, or under pressure.
  • A thick greenish or yellowish drainage of pus from within the ear.
  • Fever.
  • Feeling tired and ill.
  • Difficulty hearing.
  • Red, swollen skin around the opening of your ear. The skin may also look rough and scaly.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your upper neck.
  • Babies and toddlers with ear canal pain may not want to eat.

Who is most often affected by ear canal pain?

  • Children
  • Anyone swimming regularly, especially in non-chlorinated water such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean.
  • Anyone diving from heights, since this can force water into the ear canal.

Are ear canal pain symptoms serious?

  • A mild earache, treated right away, will usually clear up readily with no lasting effects.
  • If not treated properly or precautions are not taken, such as refraining from using cotton swabs or other objects for cleaning, infections can become recurrent and never really heal.
  • Neglected infections can become serious, because the infection can spread and cause permanent damage to your hearing.

Ear Canal Pain Causes Overview

Many conditions can have ear canal pain as a symptom. The most common are those involving bacterial or fungal infections and damage to the canal from improper cleaning, as well as foreign body irritation.

Most common ear canal pain cause types:

  • Bacterial or fungal infections from getting your head under the water of hot tubs, swimming pools, lakes, rivers, or oceans. If the water becomes trapped in your ear canal, the bacteria or fungus can multiply. The risk increases if:

    • You have a buildup of earwax inside your canal.
    • You have damage within your canal (a scratch, cut, or scrape) from cotton swabs or other instruments used inside your ear in an attempt to clean it.
  • Irritation from hair color, hairspray, etc. that has found its way inside your ear.
  • Itching from a case of dermatitis or eczema which has spread from your arms or face to the skin of your ear canal.

Less common ear canal pain cause types:

  • A contact allergy (from something you've touched) or a systemic allergy (from something you've consumed) can show up in the skin of your ear canal and cause itching and inflammation.
  • Earplugs, hearing aids, bluetooth devices, and other objects placed in your ear must be kept clean to avoid irritation and even infection.
  • Children will sometimes place small foreign objects inside the ear canal, which can scrape the skin and cause damage and infection.

Rare and unusual ear canal pain cause types:

  • Ear pain can be "referred" pain, meaning it is actually coming from somewhere else but is felt in your ear. The pain may come from:

    • The teeth or jaw, as with teething in children.
    • Infection or inflammation in the structures of your mouth and throat.
    • A tumor, growing elsewhere in your head and neck.
  • A tumor growing near or within your ear canal.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Ear Canal Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced ear canal pain. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Middle Ear Infection

    Middle ear infections, also known as otitis media, occur when the tubes that carry sound become clogged with debris like mucus.

    With proper treatment, middle ear infections generally resolve within a week.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, sore throat, new headache, fever, ear canal pain
    Symptoms that always occur with middle ear infection:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that never occur with middle ear infection:
    vertigo (extreme dizziness), face weakness, facial numbness
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

    Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, is inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal.

    7-10 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Dysfunction Disorder

    The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is located in front of the ear, and it connects the jaw to the side of the head. Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a painful condition which can be caused by excess tension in jaw mucles, faulty alignment between upper and lower teeth, arthritis in the joint, or injury of the jaw or face.

    Outcome is highly case-dependent.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck
    Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder:
    pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Earwax Blockage

    Ear wax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum, which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside. Ear wax buildup has nothing to do with poor hygiene, and it is not possible to prevent a build-up by washing.

    Condition likely will go away on its own after 5 days without treatment. However, with pain, dizziness, or feelings of fullness, the earwax should be removed.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears
    Symptoms that never occur with earwax blockage:
    swollen ear, fever
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit

    Ear Canal Pain Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having ear canal pain.

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  5. 5.Chronic Earwax Blockage

    Earwax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside.

    With treatment, the condition will resolve.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ringing in the ears, ear fullness/pressure
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic earwax blockage:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic earwax blockage:
    swollen ear, fever
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  6. 6.Cholesteatoma (a Non - Cancerous Growth in the Ear)

    Cholesteatoma is a type of skin cyst that is located in the middle ear and mastoid bone in the skull. It can be a birth defect though more commonly occurs as a complication of chronic ear infection.

    Chronic, but curable

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears, pain in one ear canal, vertigo (extreme dizziness), hearing loss in one ear
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Burst Ear Drum

    The ear drum is a thin membrane that vibrates as sound hits it, transmitting that vibration into signals that the brain understands! When it bursts, your hearing is affected. It typically happens after some force to the ear drum, such as a blow to the ear, an exploding firecracker, a fall onto water, or even a sharp object in the ear.

    Smaller perforations heal over days to weeks almost 100% of the time. Larger perforations may need a procedure. If healing doesn't happen in 8 weeks, surgery may be necessary.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    ear canal pain, constant ear pain, ringing in the ears, vertigo (extreme dizziness), hearing loss
    Symptoms that always occur with burst ear drum:
    ear canal pain, recent ear injury, constant ear pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Ear Plug Made of Skin Cells

    Keratosis Obturans is a rare disease where materials that make up the skin create a plug in the ear, causing pain, discharge, and hearing changes.

    Cured by removal

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    hearing loss, pain in one ear canal, ear discharge, hearing loss in both ears, severe ear canal pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  9. 9.Glue Ear (Otitis Media With Effusion)

    "Glue ear" is caused by fluid built up in the middle ear (under the eardrum). It happens more frequently in kids than adults because of having frequent colds and less developed tubes in the ear. In adults, it's caused by acute or chronic sinusitis in 66% of cases. It may also be caused by cigarette smoke, allergies, reflux, genetics, or bacteria, all of which stimulate the production of the fluid.

    63% get better in 3 months; 90% in 1 year

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    ear fullness/pressure, constant hearing loss, hearing loss in one ear, trouble hearing that is better in noisy environments, ear canal pain
    Symptoms that always occur with glue ear (otitis media with effusion):
    ear fullness/pressure, hearing loss in one ear, constant hearing loss
    Symptoms that never occur with glue ear (otitis media with effusion):
    ear canal pain, fever
    Urgency:
    Wait and watch

Ear Canal Pain Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate ear canal pain treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:

  • You have severe, unrelenting ear pain with fever, hearing loss, and sometimes deformity of your skull around your outer ear due to infection. There is a risk of this infection spreading to your brain or spinal cord.
  • You have a painful earache and also have a condition such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or lung disease, or you are on chemotherapy.
  • You have ear canal pain with facial paralysis and, sometimes, a bloody discharge from your ear.

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Chronic ear infections that appear one after the other.
  • Itching within your ear.
  • Excessive wax: A specialist can do a proper cleaning of your ear without risk of damaging your canal.

Ear canal pain remedies that you can try at home:

  • Strengthen your immune system through improvements in diet and exercise.
  • Keep your ears dry by using earplugs when swimming and remove them promptly afterward.
  • After swimming or showering, use a hair dryer on a low setting to dry the inside of your ears. You can also use over-the-counter after-swim drops to help prevent swimmer's ear.
  • Don't use cotton swabs (or any other object) to clean your ears. They can damage your skin and push dirt and germs farther into your ear canal, increasing chances of infection.
  • Place cotton balls in your ears when using hair color or hairspray.
  • Try a hot or cold compress on the painful ear.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or other NSAIDs.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Ear Canal Pain

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Q.What makes your ear hurt worse?
  • Q.Have you noticed a change in your hearing?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our ear canal pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Ear Canal Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced ear canal pain have also experienced:

    • 7% Sore Throat
    • 7% Headache
    • 5% Pain Behind the Ear
  • People who have experienced ear canal pain had symptoms persist for:

    • 43% Less Than a Week
    • 25% Less Than a Day
    • 13% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced ear canal pain were most often matched with:

    • 36% Middle Ear Infection
    • 36% Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
    • 27% Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Dysfunction Disorder
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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