External Ear Infections
Earlobe infections can cause pain. The infections are perceived as local redness and burning. Treatment usually consists of antibiotics.
The ear canal can infect, or an abscess may form inside it. An infection in the outer ear may be made worse by exposure to wind or swimming. An ear canal infection usually begins with itching and may eventually become painful. An examination shows infectious changes in the ear canal.
Prescribed treatment includes various bacteria-killing drops and ointments. Sometimes it may be required to clean the ear canal by irrigation, which speeds up healing.
Over-the-counter eardrops, that inhibit bacteria growth, can be used as a self-treatment in cases of mild irritation.
Heat in the form of a hot water bottle or a heating pad can be used to relieve pain.
It is advisable to use earplugs in windy conditions or while swimming. The ear canals can be dried out with a hair dryer using low heat setting. Swimming in polluted water is not recommended. Do not use any objects, especially sharp ones, to try to clean the ear.
Middle Ear Infections
A sudden middle ear infection usually causes pain in the ear. This is very common in children. Normally cold or other symptoms of respiratory infections precede the ear infection. If ears start hurting after these, a middle ear infection, also called otitis media, is a possibility.
Little children cannot express pain, but may feel irritable or cry continuously without any other reason. Sometimes the children will pull at their ears. Of course, there are many other reasons for crying than an ear infection.
During examination the doctor will see redness or bulging in the eardrum. If the eardrum gets punctured, it will cause the ear to drain. This usually alleviates the pain for a while.
Pain-relieving ear drops and pain medication can be used to treat milder cases of sudden middle ear infections when the eardrum is not punctured. Follow-up is needed. Antibiotics are often prescribed and in cases where the pain is severe, the eardrum will be punctured to remove purulent discharge from the middle ear.
In cases of prolonged or recurrent middle ear infections, an otitis media secretoria may develop. In these cases, the tonsils are usually removed, and tubes inserted in the eardrum, to increase the air circulation in the middle ear.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication may be used according to instructions as first aid to alleviate pain. If ear infections repeat in a family, it might be beneficial to ask your doctor to prescribe anesthetizing eardrops as a first-aid treatment.
Eustachean Tube Problems
The middle ear connects to the pharynx via the eustachean tube. In normal conditions, the tube balances the pressure in the middle ear. If cold or allergies cause the mucous membranes swell, this tube obstructs. When the pressure cannot be balanced with the surrounding air pressure, it causes pain. This is quite familiar with even mild colds while flying.
Treatment consists of nasal drops and allergy medication that reduce swelling in the mucous membranes. If you have this problem, it is advisable to take preventive medication before flying.
Swallowing, chewing gum and yawning may open the eustachean tube. One can try to close the nostrils mouth closed and to move air in the pharynx exhaling —this might open the tubes.
There are several neck muscles that attach to the base of the skull behind the ears. These areas may become sore and send deceptive radiating pains to ears. If nothing unusual is noted in an ear examination, but pain persists in the site where the muscles attach, the diagnosis will most likely be one of muscular pain. Treatment will consist of medication and physical therapy aimed at relaxing the muscles.
Careful massage and stretching of these muscles or over-the-counter ointments may be used as self-treatment. If the pain just started, cold compresses may work.
Strong ear pain that is not alleviated by home remedies.
See a Doctor
Prolonged pain in the ears.
Ear pain accompanied by ear discharge.
Hearing problems after respiratory infections.
Mayo Clinic pages about outer ear infection.
Healthline.com about swollen earlobe.
Patient.co.uk pages about middle ear infection.
eHealthMD.com about infection in the middle ear.
MedicineNet.com pages about Eustachian tube problems.
MedicineNet.com slideshow of anatomy of an ear infection.
Livestrong.com article about muscular and other causes of pain in the ear region.
SafeMedication.com instruction how to use ear drops properly.