Ear pain can be bothersome and disruptive, especially at night when you are trying to sleep. Although this pain is usually related to ear infection, it can also be a consequence of allergy, wax buildup, air or water pressure changes -- or rarely a more serious issue. The pain is best resolved by treating the underlying cause, which may take several days or more depending on the reason for the pain. In the meantime, certain home remedies can help manage ear pain.
Step 1: Treat the Cause
If you or your child has ear pain that is ongoing or severe, talk with your doctor. It's important to treat the cause, which may include antibiotic or other medical treatment, in order to get relief. For instance, if the ear pain is caused by an injury, it's important to have a doctor assess the ear. But a doctor's call is rarely needed when the pain is related to flying or driving in the mountains, since swallowing or chewing gum usually pops the ears and takes away the pain. Ear infections may require a doctor's assessment, and sometimes antibiotics, but home measures can be a useful way to ease the pain while the infection clears.
Step 2: Apply Heat or Cold
Applying a warm or cool compress may temporarily alleviate ear pain. Your choice of temperature depends on your preference and what seems to work. Soak a washcloth in warm or cool water, squeeze out excess water and place the washcloth on and over the ear opening. Alternatively, use a heating pad or microwaveable heat pack.
Step 3: Sleep Upright
Find a sleep position that minimizes discomfort. For example, propping the head up with an extra pillow may alleviate pain by easing pressure during sleep. This position may also enhance the drainage of fluid from the ear canals. You can also try sleeping with the painful ear facing up towards the ceiling. When resting during the day, try not to lay flat as this may aggravate your pain. Sit upright in a comfortable chair or a recliner, or rest with extra pillows on the couch.
Step 4: Try Distraction
Distraction therapy also works well. If you child has an earache, find something to occupy her senses. Give her a warm bubble bath, a new toy or coloring book, put on her favorite movie, or distract her with humor. Distraction can also work for adults. Take a long shower, watch a comedy, visit with a friend or read a good book.
Step 5: Try Pain Relievers
For ear pain in adults and children, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), are often recommended to manage the ear pain. If you are under a doctor's care for any medical conditions, ask your doctor which pain medication is best for you. Speak to your child's pediatrician first if you have not given these medications previously, or if your child is under the age of 2. Do not give aspirin or aspirin-containing products to anyone under the age of 19, to reduce the risk of Reye syndrome, a serious and sometimes fatal disease that causes swelling of the brain and liver.
Avoid digging in the ears with any type of object, even if it is soft. Also do not irrigate the ears or use OTC ear drops or olive oil in the ear unless your doctor recommends this as a way to manage the ear pain. If you use drops or oil in the ear, bring to room temperature before placing in the ear. Drops that are too cold can cause discomfort or may cause dizziness.
If you or your child has ear pain that is severe or has persisted for more than 48 hours, call your doctor. Also, communicate with your doctor if the ear pain accompanies fever, sore throat, discharge, ringing, hearing loss, swelling or rash.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Merck Manual: Earache
- Pediatrics: The Diagnosis and Management of Acute Otitis Media
- The Pharmaceutical Journal: How To Diagnose and Manage Primary and Secondary Earache and Ear Infections
- American Family Physician: Earaches in Children
- American Family Physician: Aspirin Use in Children for Fever or Viral Syndromes