How to Treat an Ear Ache

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Ear aches are a painful and common ailment, especially in children. The causes are variable and include everything from excess fluid in the ear to traveling in a higher altitude. Read on to learn how to treat an ear ache.

Things You'll Need

  • Over-the-counter pain reliever
  • Warm/cold compresses

Provide Initial Treatment for an Ear Ache

  • Determine what type of ear ache it is that you need to treat. Ear aches can be categorized into two types: otitis externa and otitis media. Otitis externa is sometimes referred to as "swimmer's ear" and is an infection of the skin in the outer ear or ear canal. Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear or eardrum and is most common in infants and toddlers.

  • Treat the pain of an ear ache with over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Make sure to give (or take) pain medications prior to bedtime, as lying down can increase the pressure and pain of an ear ache. Along the same lines, rest with your head elevated or sitting in a reclined position to alleviate some of the pressure.

  • Apply heat or cold to the painful ear, using a compress made from a warm/cold washcloth, heating pad or icepack. The choice is yours, and depends on which temperature relieves the pain best.

  • Chew gum, suck on a sucking candy or provide an infant or toddler with a bottle or pacifier. The swallowing associated with these activities can help to relieve some of the pressure built up behind the eardrum, especially when ear aches are caused by changes in altitude.

  • Assess whether the symptoms need to be treated by a physician. Severe ear aches that persist for more than a few hours, or a mild ear ache that persists for more than a couple of days warrant trips to the doctor.

  • Take antibiotics as prescribed. Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, so if your doctor prescribes oral medication or prescription ear drops for an ear infection, it's likely they are needed.

Provide Ongoing Treatment for Children's Ear Aches

  • Consider preventive antibiotic treatments for children who have more than four ear infections per year. Some doctors recommend long-term antibiotic treatment at a low dose as preventive measure, while others oppose using antibiotics on a long-term basis. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons before making a final decision.

  • Monitor fluid buildup, as persistent fluid behind the eardrum can be a breeding ground for infection. Additionally, young children's speech development can be affected if their hearing is distorted by fluid buildup.

  • Consider having surgery done to insert tubes into the eardrum. The operation is not uncommon in children who have recurrent ear infections and fluid behind the eardrum. They allow fluid to drain and the tubes fall out on their own after six to 12 months.

  • Explore the option of removing your child's adenoids and tonsils if all other treatments have failed. The surgical removal of the structures can improve air and fluid flow in the nasal passages, which in turn can reduce the build up of fluid in the eustachian tubes.

Tips & Warnings

  • If your doctor recommends or prescribes ear drops, it's important to use them correctly. Lie on your side with the painful ear up, pull back gently on the ear and place the drops in the ear canal. You should stay in this position for at least five minutes to allow the drops to settle in the ear canal.
  • Never give aspirin to children, as it is linked to a dangerous complication known as Reye's Syndrome.
  • Always call your doctor if an ear ache is accompanied by a high fever, dizziness or a stiff neck.

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