The Inside of My Ear Hurts, Why? | Understanding Ear Canal Pain

Understand your ear canal pain symptoms, including 9 causes & treatment options for your ear canal pain.

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

Ear Canal Pain Symptom Checker

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 9 Possible Ear Canal Pain Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  6. Statistics
  7. Related Articles
  8. References

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, your doctor can easily treat this condition, 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 [1].

Common characteristics of ear canal pain

If you're experiencing ear canal pain, it can likely present as:

  • Moderate to severe pain just inside your ear
  • Itching within your ear: This itchiness may intensify if you pull on the outside of your ear.
  • Feeling that your ear is blocked, full, or under pressure
  • Discharge: A thick greenish or yellowish drainage of pus may come from within the ear.
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Red, swollen skin around the opening of your ear: The skin may also look rough and scaly.

Common accompanying symptoms

It's also likely to experience the following.

  • Fever
  • Feeling tired and ill
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your upper neck
  • Poor appetite in babies and toddlers

Who is most often affected by ear canal pain?

The following people are more likely to experience ear canal pain.

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

Are ear canal pain symptoms serious?

The severity of ear canal pain depends on the cause.

  • Not serious: A mild earache, treated right away, will usually clear up readily with no lasting effects [2].
  • Moderately serious: 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.
  • Serious: Neglected infections can become severe because the infection can spread and permanently damage your hearing.

Ear Canal Pain Causes

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician [3,4].

Most common causes

The most common causes of ear canal pain include the following.

  • Infections: Bacterial or fungal infections may occur if you submerge your head in a hot tub, swimming pool, lake, river, or ocean. If the water becomes trapped in your ear canal, the bacteria or fungus can multiply. The risk of infection increases if you have a buildup of earwax inside your canal or you have damage within your canal (a scratch, cut, or scrape) from cotton swabs or other instruments.
  • Irritants: Irritation from hair color, hairspray, etc. may find its way inside your ear.
  • Itching: Your ear may itch from a case of dermatitis or eczema that spread from your arms or face.

Less common causes

Less common causes of ear canal pain include the following.

  • Allergy: 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: Keep objects you place in your ear clean.
  • Lodged foreign objects: Children will sometimes place small foreign objects inside the ear canal, which can scrape the skin and cause damage and infection.

Rare and unusual causes

Ear pain can be "referred" pain, meaning it is actually coming from somewhere else but is felt in your ear [5]. The pain may come from the teeth or jaw in teething children, an infection or inflammation in the structures of your mouth and throat, or a tumor growing in the vicinity.

9 Possible Ear Canal Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced ear canal pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Middle ear infection

Middle ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is a bacterial or viral infection of the air-filled space behind the eardrum. An ear infection is usually secondary to a cold, allergy, or influenza.

Young children are most susceptible due to weaker immune systems and to the small size and shape of the Eustachian tubes in the ears. Children in group care settings are more exposed to colds and flu and therefore more prone to ear infections.

Symptoms include ear pain due to inflammation; drainage of fluid from the ear; and sometimes hearing difficulty. Children may cry, run a fever, and pull at the affected ear.

If symptoms last more than a day, a medical provider should be seen. Long-lasting or repeated ear infections can lead to hearing damage and to speech and learning problems.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Middle ear infections often clear up on their own and antibiotics may only be needed for infants and severe cases. Warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers can be used. Do not give aspirin to children.

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

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the canal which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.

It is caused by anything that introduces bacteria, fungus, or a virus into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause, as are cotton swabs used for cleaning or earpieces that create irritation.

Most susceptible are children, because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.

Early symptoms include redness, itching, and discomfort inside the ear canal, sometimes with drainage of clear fluid.

Even mild symptoms should be treated because they can quickly get worse. The infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination of the ear canal. Lab tests may be done on a sample of the discharge from the ear.

Treatment includes having a medical provider clean the ear canal of debris and discharge, and a prescription for antibiotic and/or steroid eardrops.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.

Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.

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

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.

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 Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your ear canal pain

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

When it is an emergency

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

  • You have severe, unrelenting ear pain: Along 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 another condition: Such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or lung disease, or you are on chemotherapy
  • You have ear canal pain with facial paralysis: Or you have a bloody discharge from your ear.

When to see a doctor

Schedule an appointment for the following.

  • You have chronic ear infections that appear one after the other
  • You have persistent itching within your ear
  • You have excessive wax: A specialist can properly clean your ear without damaging your ear canal.

At-home treatments

Ear canal pain remedies you can try at home include the following.

  • Make overall lifestyle changes: Strengthen your immune system through improvements in diet and exercise.
  • Keep your ears dry: Keep your ears dry by using earplugs when swimming and remove them promptly afterward.
  • Dry your ears if you do get wet: 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.
  • Avoid cleaning tools: 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.
  • Protect your inner ears: Place cotton balls in your ears when using hair color or hairspray.
  • Heat or cold: Try a hot or cold compress on the painful ear.
  • Pain medication: Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Ear Canal Pain

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your ear canal pain. These questions are also covered.

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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 were most often matched with:

  • 36% Middle Ear Infection
  • 36% Swimmer'S Ear (Otitis Externa)
  • 27% Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Dysfunction Disorder

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

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Ear Canal Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your ear canal pain

References

  1. Ely JW, Hansen MR, Clark EC. Diagnosis of Ear Pain. American Family Physician. 2008;77(5):621-628. AAFP Link.
  2. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection). Columbia University: Department of Otolaryngology. ENT Columbia Link.
  3. Otitis Externa. NHS inform. Updated September 6, 2018. NHS inform Link.
  4. Earwood JS, Rogers TS, Rathjen NA. Ear Pain: Diagnosing Common and Uncommon Causes. American Family Physician. 2018;97(1):20-27. AAFP Link.
  5. Taziki MH, Behnampour N. A Study of the Etiology of Referred Otalgia. Iranian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology. 2012;24(69):171-6. NCBI Link.