Sharp Pain in Ear: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor

Sharp Pain in Ear: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor
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Experiencing a sharp pain in the ear can be very worrying and cause you a lot of discomfort. If you suffer from severe earache, you may find it difficult to concentrate, get on with your daily activities, and even keep your balance.

The ear is a complex sensory organ that contains sensitive tissue and small bones that help us hear. Because the ear is connected to the nose and is close to the jaw and facial muscles, many different conditions can cause a painful ear. The sharp shooting ear pain could originate in the outer or middle ear if you have a bacterial or viral infection there. Or, the painful stabbing sensation could originate in the inner ear if there is inflammation.

Most of the time sharp pain in one or both ears is due to an infection in your respiratory system that also affects your ears. So, if you have had a cold or the flu, you will often have mild to severe ear pain. However, the pain in your ear can come from problems with your jaw, toothache, blocked sinuses, or even arthritis. You could also have a painful ear when on an airplane or after swimming.

This article looks at the symptoms and causes of having a sharp pain in your ear. You will also find helpful natural home remedies to soothe a painful earache and treat the underlying cause of pain in your ear.

Symptoms of Ear Pain

Ear pain, especially if it is sharp and severe, can be difficult to deal with. This is because, along with the earache in your left ear or right ear, you may have other symptoms that make you feel even worse.

For example, researchers from Harvard Health say that an infection in your ear or upper respiratory system will often cause inflammation and swelling deep in the ear canal. Along with the pain, you could have a blocked nose, fever, and other symptoms of a cold or flu virus.1 You may also have fluid discharge from your ear and the ear may be itchy or painful to touch.

Dr. Benjamin Wedro on eMedicineHealth says that, depending on the cause of the sore ear, you may also have redness and swelling around the outer ear, jaw pain, a sore throat, and a constant ringing in your ears. If your inner ear is affected, you may also have vertigo and find it difficult to keep your balance.2

Dr. Wedro says that often aching ears can be treated with natural home remedies. But, before looking at effective natural ways to treat a sharp pain in your ear at home, let’s look at what could be causing your ears to be sore.

Causes of Sharp Ear Pain Due to Ear Conditions

The most obvious causes of mild to sharp pain in your ears are conditions that occur in your ear canal.

Outer ear infection (otitis externa)

An infection in your outer ear is very often a reason for having painful ears that cause a lot of discomfort. The outer ear is the part of the ear that you can see including the small opening into your ear.

According to Dr. Mary Lowth on Patient.info, bacteria are often to blame for outer ear infections. This can be caused by damage to the surface of the ear by scratching, cleaning the ear with cotton buds, or a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis.3 This causes severe itching, redness around the outer ear, and possible temporary hearing impairment.

The Mayo Clinic says that because outer ear infections are sometimes caused by water getting into the ear, it is sometimes called swimmer’s ear. Doctors say that advanced outer ear infections can cause severe ear pain that radiates to the face or side of your head.4

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

Ear infections can also go deeper into your ear and cause painful symptoms in your middle ear. The middle ear is the part of the ear canal between the ear drum and end of the ear canal. Any infection or inflammation in the middle ear can cause a feeling of sharp shooting pain deep inside the ear.

Dr. Susan Kim on WebMD states that middle ear infections often occur alongside having a cold or flu. Fluid can build up in the ear canal and, if this gets infected with bacteria, pus and inflammation start causing pain and other problems in the ear, like affecting your hearing. The pain in the ear may be severe for the first week or so then comes and goes.5

Inner ear infection (otitis interna)

The cold or flu virus may also cause an inner ear infection which can be painful and make you feel dizzy. The condition is sometimes called labyrinthitis because it affects the structure in your inner ear called the labyrinth.

According to doctors from the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, inner ear inflammation and infections can cause ear pain, headaches, and you may notice pus draining from your ears. The painful symptoms may be severe during the first 7 days and then gradually get better.6

Earwax buildup

A buildup of earwax can also lead to earache and sharp pain in your ear. Your ears can become blocked with earwax (cerumen) if it gets pushed deep into the ear canal. This is one of the reasons never to clean your ears with cotton buds. If you use a hearing aid or ear plugs, then you are at more risk of an earwax buildup.

According to Dr. Gayle M Galletta on eMedicineHealth, ear pain can be a symptom of earwax blockage. Along with the pain, you may also have a feeling of your ear canal being plugged and loss of hearing in the affected ear.7

At the end of the article, you can find some excellent home remedies to remove earwax naturally and get relief from a sharp pain in your ears.

Barotrauma

Sometimes, landing and taking off on an aircraft can cause mild to sharp stabbing pain in your ears. This is a condition called barotrauma and can also affect scuba divers. However, it can also be a side effect from an upper respiratory infection. The earache is caused when pressure in your ear canal is different from the pressure on the other side of your ear drum.

Specialist in laryngology, Dr. Sumana Jothi says that one of the classic symptoms of barotrauma is ear pain and discomfort in one or both ears.8

There are many ways to pop your ears naturally and relieve the pressure from your middle ear. Sometimes, chewing gum or using airplane earplugs can help to get relief from pain in your ear.

Mastoiditis

Inflammation in the mastoid bone behind the ear can be a reason for constant sharp pain in the ear. Mastoiditis is often caused by a bacterial infection if you have had a chronic middle ear infection (otitis media).

According to doctors from the NHS, mastoiditis can cause tenderness and pain just behind the ear. Along with the painful ear, you may also have redness and the mastoid bone could become swollen. Discharge and a fever may indicate that there is an infection in the middle ear.9

Ruptured eardrum

An ear infection can also cause the eardrum to rupture which will cause a sudden sharp pain in the ear. Or, the sign of a ruptured eardrum could be a constant earache that suddenly goes away.

Dr. Neha Pathak on WebMD says that a ruptured eardrum can be caused by an infection, damage to the eardrum, or sharp, loud noises. This will cause a sharp pain in the affected ear and may result in buzzing or hearing loss in that ear. Usually, a ruptured eardrum heals on its own within a few months. However, your ear canal is at risk of infection because the eardrum protects the middle and inner ear from infection. It’s also important to keep the ear dry and free from moisture.10

Cholesteatoma

Cholesteatoma is a buildup of dead skin cells in the ear that form into a cyst. Although the condition itself doesn’t usually cause sharp ear pain, doctors from Marshfield Clinic say that it can lead to ear infections that cause a mild to severe earache.11

Foreign object in ear

A common cause of sharp pain in a child’s ear is a foreign object being lodged in the ear. However, trying to clean your ears with bobby pins, cotton swabs, or other sharp objects can damage the sensitive tissue in your ear and cause pain.

Dr. John Ely from the University of Iowa says that some of the common objects removed from children’s ear because they complained about sore ears are popcorn kernels, beads, paper, and insects.12

Other Causes of Sharp Ear Pain

It would be a mistake to think that all types of ear pain, even if the earache is severe, are caused by an infection in the ear. There are other causes of ear pain that aren’t connected to the ear.

Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) syndrome

A cause of sharp ear pain that doesn’t involve your ear is a condition called temporomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint is where your jaw is connected to your skull and because it is right next to your ear, any disorder of the joint can cause varying degrees of pain in the ear.

Doctor of Dental Surgery, Dr. Michael Friedman says that stress, grinding your teeth, head injury, or arthritis can cause TMD. This can result in jaw pain that radiates to the ear, face, or head. You may also notice swelling around the ear on the affected side of your face.13

At the end of the article, you can see how to use a warm or cold compress to alleviate ear pain caused by TMD.

Toothache

Another cause of sharp pain in one or both of your ears is toothache. Having dental pain won’t just cause an unbearable painful sensation in your mouth, but it could affect your ears, head, and face.

Dr. Steven Horne on eMedicineHealth says that severe inflammation of the gums or tooth and toothache can radiate to the ear and be a reason for an earache.14 However, you may have the opposite problem; doctors on WebMD say that sometimes earache caused by an infection can radiate to the teeth causing you to think you have a toothache.15

Therefore, if you have a toothache, it is best to see your dentist for a full check up to make sure that the sharp pains in your ear aren’t a sign of tooth decay. Of course, making sure you have good dental habits can help prevent cavities forming in your teeth.

Tonsillitis

Inflammation of your tonsils will give you a sore throat and possible sharp pain in your ear. Tonsillitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection and can leave you with swollen glands in your neck, white spots on your tonsils, and other classic symptoms of fighting an infection.

The reason why tonsillitis can give you pains in your ears is explained by Dr. Steven Doerr. He says that nerves connect the back of your neck and your edust ars. Any inflammation in your tonsils can cause these nerves to become inflamed and give you a sharp painful sensation in your ear.16

For some practical home remedies to treat the symptoms of tonsillitis, please read my article on how to fight tonsillitis naturally. Also, taking steps to easily strengthen your immune system can help to prevent viral and bacterial infections.

Arthritis of the jaw

Dr. Neil Kaneshiro on MedlinePlus says that arthritis of the jaw can be a cause of earache. If you have constant sharp pains in your ear without signs of an infection, then your doctor may check you for arthritis.17

Many people have found relief from arthritis pain by taking turmeric supplements regularly. You can also help to manage arthritis symptoms by eating certain foods.

Chronic sinusitis

Chronic sinusitis can cause painful ears as pressure from your sinuses affects your ears and the front of your head. Any blockage in your sinus passages in your forehead and nose can cause a lot of discomfort.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that ear pain is one of the symptoms of chronic sinusitis. However, before the pain develops in your ears, you will usually experience thick nasal discharge, reduced sense of smell, and a sore throat.18

You can help relieve ear pain that is caused by sinusitis by trying out one of my great remedies for clearing sinuses. Also, there are many natural essential oils that are great for getting rid of blocked sinuses.

Hay fever (allergic rhinitis)

Another reason why you can have sharp pain in your middle ear is suffering from seasonal allergies like allergic rhinitis. Allergens like pollen, dust mites, mold, or dander from animals can cause inflammation in your respiratory system that can also affect your ears.

Doctors from the NHS say that a complication of allergic rhinitis is an increase in middle ear infections. These ear infections will cause the usual symptoms of an ear infection like mild to sharp pain, discharge, and possible temporary loss of hearing in the affected ear.19

If you are troubled by allergic rhinitis or seasonal hay fever, then you can try out some of my effective natural antihistamines or these essential oils that can help to ease the symptoms of allergy.

How to Treat Sharp Ear Pain Naturally

Many home remedies are helpful for relieving sharp pain in your ears and also help to get rid of their associated symptoms.

Warm or cold compress

One way to quickly get relief from shooting pains in your ear is to use a warm or cold compress. For example, Dr. Neil Kaneshiro on MedlinePlus says that a cold compress pressed to your ear can help to relieve pain.17

Dr. Judith Lynch on Medscape says that a warm compress can help to reduce the pain caused by an outer ear infection.20

So, you may want to try either to see which type of compress gives you the best relief from a sharp earache.

How to use:

To make a compress (warm or cold) to get rid of sharp pain in the ear, this is what you should do:

  1. Dip a clean wash cloth in either warm or cold water and squeeze out the excess water.
  2. Hold to your affected ear for 20 minutes.
  3. Every so often, repeat the first step to keep the compress at the correct temperature.
  4. Use the remedy 3-4 times a day to help get relief from an earache.

Olive oil

Another natural remedy to help treat an ear infection and soothe pain in your ear is to use warm olive oil. Warm olive oil is also a great way to soften earwax that could be blocking your ear and causing pain and hearing loss.

For example, PubMed says that warm olive oil can help to soften earwax and make its removal easier. This can help prevent too much earwax blocking your ear canal and it is a much safer way to prevent ear infections than cleaning ears with cotton buds.21

How to use:

To use olive oil to unclog a blocked ear and help soothe any pain in the ear, this is what you should do:

  1. Warm the olive oil.
  2. Using a dropper, put a few drops into your affected ear and let the warm oil soften the earwax.
  3. Keep your head to one side for a few minutes.
  4. Gently remove any soften wax from your outer ear with a cotton swab.

Remember, don’t put the cotton swab too far into your ear canal.

To help cure an ear infection in your middle ear with a garlic and olive oil remedy, please read my article on how to get rid of an ear infection.

Hydrogen peroxide

One way to get earwax out of your ear and disinfect germs that may cause an outer ear infection is to use food grade hydrogen peroxide.

For example, doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend 3% food grade hydrogen peroxide in a dropper bottle to help soften ear wax.22

How to use:

To clean your ears with hydrogen peroxide and help prevent infections that cause earache, you should do this:

  1. Tilt your head to one side and put a few drops of 3% food grade hydrogen peroxide in your ear.
  2. Press on the small triangle of skin in front of your ear to help the solution soften the earwax.
  3. Do this for 10-15 seconds.
  4. Tilt your head to the other side and clean the soften ear wax with a clean cotton pad.
  5. Repeat the process 2-3 times a day until your ear infection has gone and you don’t have sharp pain in your ear.

Please remember, this should not be used to treat infections in your middle ear (otitis media) or if your sharp ear pain is caused by a ruptured eardrum.

Steam inhalation

One way to get rid of sharp earache pain that is caused by respiratory infections or sinusitis is to inhale steam containing soothing essential oils. Many essential oils have antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that can help to kill off infections in your nose, throat, and ears.

According to information published in the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, there are many essential oils that have proven to be effective in treating ear infections. Here are some of the essential oils that were mentioned:23

How to use:

To make your own steam inhalation at home with essential oils to help address the underlying cause of some earache problems, this is what you should do:

  1. Put boiling water in a heatproof bowl (don’t use plastic).
  2. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oils
  3. Put a towel over your head and breathe in deeply to help the therapeutic steam get to your respiratory system.
  4. Repeat 2-3 times a day until symptoms of infection and your ear pain have gone.

When to See a Doctor

If the sharp pain in your ear continues after a few days of using home remedies, you should visit your doctor. This is because ear infections can become very serious and more difficult to treat if the infection starts to spread.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic and WebMD recommend seeing a doctor for earache if you also have the following symptoms:24, 25

  • The ear pain is very severe and last more than a day.
  • You notice discharge, pus, or blood coming from your ear.
  • An infant has earache.
  • You have a high fever.
  • You get frequent ear infections that cause you pain.

Read these related articles:

Article Sources

  1. Drugs. Earache in adults.
  2. eMedicnineHealth. Earache and ear pain.
  3. PatientInfo. Ear infection (otitis externa)
  4. MayoClinic. Swimmer’s ear.
  5. WebMD. Ear infections – what happens.
  6. NHS. Labyrinthitis.
  7. eMedicineHealth. Earwax buildup and blockage.
  8. MedlinePlus. Ear barotrauma.
  9. NHS. Mastoiditis.
  10. WebMD. Ruptured eardrum.
  11. MarshfieldClinic. Cholesteatoma.
  12. AAFP. Diagnosis of ear pain.
  13. WebMD. Temporomandibular joint pain.
  14. eMedicineHealth. Toothache.
  15. WebMD. An overview of toothache.
  16. eMedicineHealth. Tonsillitis.
  17. MedlinePlus. Earache.
  18. MayoClinic. Chronic sinusitis.
  19. NHS. Complications of allergic rhinitis.
  20. Medscape. How should swimmer’s ear be managed?
  21. PubMed. Otitis externa.
  22. MayoClinic. Earwax blockage.
  23. Int J Curr Microbiol App Sci (2014) 3(9) 415-429.
  24. MayoClinic. Ear infection.
  25. WebMD. Understanding ear infection.
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