Causes of adult ear pain and when to see a doctor

woman speaking with doctor about ear pain

Earaches aren’t just for little kids who swim too much, grown-ups can get them too.

If you are an adult who regularly suffers from earaches, here is our guide to what might be going wrong and when to see a doctor.


First up, eeueww, but let’s face it, earwax happens to all of us, it’s just the degree of earwax that can be a problem.

Earwax is the body’s way of protecting the ear. It’s secreted by glands in the ear canal to trap dust and particles before they get to the delicate interior of the ear.

That sounds worthy if yukky, but you can have too much of a good thing.

If you suffer from a build-up or impacted earwax it can at the very least make your ear itchy and the worst, cause ear infections, mild deafness and tinnitus.

Read: Could headphones be causing your hearing problems?

If you think you have build-up or a plug, first of all, don’t go poking around in there, you are just as likely to push it in further.

Try over-the-counter drops to break the plug up and if that doesn’t work, see your doctor.

Air pressure

Flying or even driving into higher altitudes can cause mild annoyance or shocking pain.

That little ‘pop’ you feel when you fly is your ear controlling its internal air pressure, it shouldn’t hurt, but if you have an existing infection or an allergy it can cause pain.

If you are flying, it’s probably solvable by chewing a lolly or swallowing during take-off and landing or taking a deep breath, pinching your nostrils shut and gently trying to blow air out of your nose.

While sometimes travel is inescapable, if you suffer from pain during take-off and landing, try to avoid flying when you have a cold or flu or sinusitis.

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Swimmer’s ear

If you swim a lot and your ear hurts when you tug on your earlobe you probably have swimmer’s ear, which is an infection of the ear canal from the eardrum to the outer ear.

It happens when germs begin to breed in any water left trapped in the outer ear canal, a little germ soup, if you will.

It can easily be avoided by ensuring your ears are dry after swimming – do that weird hopping and shaking your head routine – but if it doesn’t clear up it’s time to go to a doctor, who will probably recommend antibiotic drops.

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Middle ear infection

Your head has a lot of tiny tubes, many in and around your ears, that become easily infected, especially if you are suffering from a cold, allergies, tonsillitis or a sinus infection.

If fluid builds up and gets infected, it is called Otitis media, and is the most common cause of infection.

Don’t muck around if you think you have a middle ear infection; go straight to your doctor. You can lose your hearing in extreme cases.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or a decongestant allergy treatment with an antihistamine or a nasal steroid.

Grinding your teeth

Put your finger on the ‘hinge’ of your jaw, notice it’s directly below your ear? If you constantly grind your teeth, it’s probably going to affect your ears at some point.

Visit your dentist to see if they can help for long-term relief, but in the short term, over-the-counter painkillers should help.

It can also be caused by arthritis in this joint, but that should also be checked out by a doctor to confirm the diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.

Do you suffer from earache? How did you treat it? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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