An earache can be a miserable experience for anyone but especially for a young child. Otitis media, a middle ear infection, can cause this pain as can otitis externa, commonly called "swimmers ear." After the infection is over, though, the pain can persist, recurring when cold air touches still-sensitive tissues. And for some people the ears' nerve endings are always vulnerable to cold. The good news is that this problem is easy to treat.
Blocking the Cold
Even in the coldest of weather it is possible to keep the ears warm. Mufflers or hats for this purpose should completely cover the ears and be made of a solid fabric or multiple layers, to block out wind on blustery days. The chullo hats from Peru are made for the winds in that country's mountainous regions, and there are many knitting patterns for chullos online. To make it even more protective, line the chullo with flannel.
A scarf can be added for adults and older children, but scarves can be dangerous for unsupervised infants and young kids, especially when playing.
To keep the cold wind out of the ears even more directly, place a small amount of a cotton ball, rolled loosely to make it the size of the outermost opening of the ear, gently into the ear. Remember that children may not be able to hear well when this is done, so they could miss sirens, horns or their mothers calling them to come in out of the snow. It's also not safe to place cotton balls in the ears and drive.
Treating the Pain
Over-the-counter analgesics, such as pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can be used if ear pain does occur. Refer to your physician or pharmacist for the proper dose, as other medications as well as age and weight can influence the amount required.
The practice of placing warm oil in the ear to relieve pain is very widespread but also potentially dangerous. If there are even minute holes in the tympanic membrane between the outer ear and the middle ear the oil will carry bacteria into the middle ear causing an increased risk of ear infection.
But the principle of applying warmth is correct. To be safe, simply apply the heat from the outside. Wet a washcloth and place it in a plastic sandwich bag. Microwave it for a minute and let out all the steam that gathers. Then seal it tightly and wrap it in a soft cloth or piece of flannel. Lay the affected ear on the warm cloth and you may find that a great deal of the pain is relieved within the first 30 minutes.
When to Seek Medical Care
If the pain is not relieved after giving an over-the-counter analgesic and applying a warm compress, infection may be present. The American Academy of Otolaryngologists caution that ear infections can lead to hearing loss unless treated promptly.
If the ear pain occurs after any type of fall or a blow to the ear, cold air may not be to blame. The most dangerous situation occurs if the ear is draining clear fluid, which could be cerebrospinal fluid. Go to the nearest emergency room if this is a possibility. Drainage of clear fluid with an elevated temperature can also indicate meningitis, so this symptom must always be investigated rapidly.