A little discomfort in your ear isn't usually cause for major concern. But if you're experiencing sharp or stabbing pain in your ear, you might start to worry whether it's serious.
Sudden or intense ear pain is often caused by an infection, but in some cases, an underlying condition with your jaw or the nerves around your face could be at play, says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
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Here's help for figuring out what you might be dealing with, and what you can do to feel better,
1. You Have an Ear Infection
Ear infections are one of the most common causes of sharp ear pain, and sometimes, it can be intense. "An ear infection causes severe inflammation, swelling and drainage of the ear, which can cause severe pain," Dr. Mehdizadeh says. "Anecdotally, I have had a couple of female patients tell me their middle ear infection is as painful as unmedicated childbirth."
Ear infections can happen when bacteria or a virus make their way into the ear. That can happen from a cold or allergies, from water that stays in the ear after swimming (see: swimmer's ear) or from putting foreign objects in the ear like a cotton swab or a dirty finger.
A mild ear infection can make your ear red, itchy and uncomfortable. But as the infection becomes more severe, the pain tends to get worse and may start to radiate to your face, neck or the side of your head. It can also cause your ear to hurt when you swallow and can lead to muffled hearing, swelling and even a fever, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: Mild ear infections sometimes clear up on their own or can be handled with natural earache remedies. However, sharp or intense pain warrants a call to the doctor. The infection may require antibiotics or antifungal medications, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Your doctor might also recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers or prescribe numbing drops to ease the pain as the infection clears.
2. It's a Sinus Infection
Sinus infections happen when the tissue lining the sinuses — the air-filled spaces in the skull — becomes blocked and filled with fluid. That's usually the result of a cold or seasonal allergies, but it can also happen from a deviated septum.
Sinus infections typically cause pain or pressure around the nose and eyes, along with post-nasal drip, green or yellow nasal discharge and bad breath, per the Cleveland Clinic. In some cases, though, the pain can travel to your ears, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
Ear pain from a sinus infection isn't usually sharp or stabbing, unless the infection is very severe. In that case, you should seek treatment ASAP, says Dr. Mehdizadeh.
Fix it: Decongestants and nasal irrigation can help clear out the gunk and make you more comfortable when you're dealing with a mild sinus infection. Staying hydrated and applying warm compresses are additional natural remedies for sinus infections to try.
But you should let your doctor know if the pain becomes severe or if your symptoms haven't eased up after 10 days. In that case, you might need antibiotics or a prescription nasal steroid spray to help clear the infection, per the Cleveland Clinic.
3. There's a Problem With Your Jaw Muscle
Jaw discomfort or soreness accompanied by headaches, a clicking or popping sensation around the jaw, pain that spreads around the eyes or face and earaches or ear ringing may be caused by a temporomandibular disorder or TMD.
The problem is often caused by clenching or grinding your teeth, sometimes without even realizing it, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. TMDs generally cause an aching in the ear, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. But occasionally, the pain could feel sharp or stabbing.
Fix it: See your doctor if you suspect you have TMD, especially if you have pain in both your jaw and ear. Depending on your symptoms and the severity, managing the problem might involve behavioral changes or relaxation techniques to reduce clenching or wearing a mouthguard, says Dr. Mehdizadeh.
Jaw exercises or stretches can help too. In some cases, surgery may also be required.
4. Something Is Stuck in Your Ear
Babies and kids are more prone than adults to getting foreign objects (anything from food, to beads, to small toys, to insects) stuck in their ears. But anyone can be affected.
"A foreign body will place pressure in the ear canal and on some occasions the ear drum, which is very sensitive," Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
And if the object causes an infection, it can make the pain worse.
An object stuck in the ear can also cause ringing or muffled hearing — and if an insect is in there, you might even notice buzzing or tickling.
Fix it: If you can see the object clearly and it's easy to grasp, you can try removing it with clean tweezers (avoid cotton swabs, which can push the object in further or damage the eardrum).
Using a rubber-bulb syringe filled with warm water can help rinse the object out, if you know there's not a hole in the eardrum and you (or your child) don't have ear tubes.
If you're dealing with an insect, you can pour a small amount of warm (never hot) olive or baby oil into the ear, which can encourage the insect to float out, the Mayo Clinic notes.
You should contact your doctor if the object is difficult to grasp, doesn't come out on the first try or if you're having signs of an infection, per the Mayo Clinic. In that case, the object may need to be removed with suction, heavier irrigation or even surgery.
5. You Have a Nerve Problem
Stabbing or sharp pain in the ear that comes and goes could be a sign of trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve problem that causes painful sensations around the face. "It feels similar to a bolt of lightning," says Dr. Mehdizadeh, and can often be brought on by touching the face, chewing, talking or brushing your teeth.
Fix it: Some people with neuralgia find relief with medications like anticonvulsants, antispasmodics or Botox injections. But the effects don't always last, and the medications can sometimes cause side effects, according to the Mayo Clinic. When that happens, injections or surgery can be good options.
When to See a Doctor About Sharp Pain in Your Ear
Sudden ear pain can sometimes be serious. You should let your doctor know about ear pain that doesn't ease up after several days or that gets worse or becomes sharp or stabbing. Intense ear pain could be caused by a severe ear infection or another problem that needs treatment in order to get better.
Seek emergency care for sharp ear pain that's accompanied by bleeding ears, dizziness, hearing loss or a high fever (103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in adults).
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.