Ear Discomfort

What is the cause of ear discomfort?

Ear discomfort may be caused by a variety of issues. The discomfort may range from muffled sounds, ear fullness or pressure, decreased hearing, or pain that may radiate into the jaw. Ear infections, both outer ear infections affecting the outer ear canal distal to the eardrum and middle ear infections affecting the space behind the eardrum, are more common in younger children but can affect adults. In middle ear infections, pus can build up behind the eardrum and sometimes cause the eardrum to perforate resulting in a loss of hearing and drainage from the ear. An outer ear infection is often called “swimmer’s ear”, as it frequently is caused by  prolonged exposure of the ear canals to water.  Ear discomfort can also accompany other conditions such as allergies, colds, strep infections or sinus infections.  A common issue for ear discomfort on college campuses is the buildup of wax in the ear canal or the frequent use of headphones/earbuds.

Signs and Symptoms:

  • Decreased hearing
  • Popping sounds when swallowing
  • Fullness or pressure in the ear
  • Pain, sometimes may radiate down into the jaw
  • Fever
  • Dizziness

When to see a provider:

  • Temperature higher than 100.5 °F
  • Discharge of fluid, blood or pus from the ears
  • The ear discomfort is getting worse or is accompanied by other symptoms
  • Severe pain or hearing loss

Prevention tips and over the counter treatment options:

  • Decongestants help relieve pressure associated with sinus congestion
  • Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) taken as directed on the package
  • Avoid inserting anything into the ear canal, especially q-tips.
  • Properly clean ears daily in the shower by allowing the water to flow into and back out of the canal. Ear wax removal kits sold over the counter provide drops that when placed in the canal overnight, can help soften the hardened wax. The wax can often then be flushed out in the shower in the morning or with suction bulbs provided in the kit. Be very gentle when cleaning ears as damage to the eardrum could lead to permanent hearing loss.
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke