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Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 12 and Older

Overview

Ear problems may be caused by many different health problems. But ear pain at any age may be a symptom of:

Ear problems caused by an injury to the ear can occur at any age. Common causes of ear injuries include:

  • A fall or a forceful, direct blow to the side of the head. This can burst the eardrum or damage the tiny bones in the inner ear that send sound to the brain.
  • An injury during contact sports. Sports can cause injuries such as "cauliflower" ear from wrestling.
  • Loud noises or explosions. They can damage the eardrum (acoustic trauma).
  • Atmospheric pressure change (barotrauma). It can cause problems with the eustachian tube and trap air in or keep air out of the middle ear. Middle ear problems can be severe. For example, the eardrum can burst or the middle ear can fill with blood or pus. Or they can be mild and only be felt as changes in pressure.
  • Cuts or scrapes. They may injure the outside of the ear or ear canal.
  • Cleaning the ear canal too often, too forcefully, or with a cotton swab, bobby pin, or sharp fingernail. This can cause irritation or injury.
  • Burns or frostbite (thermal injuries).
  • Objects placed in the ear. They can cause injury to the ear canal or the eardrum (tympanic membrane).

Hearing loss often comes with age. As people get older, ear problems are more likely to be related to:

  • Heredity. The age of onset and how quickly the hearing loss happens can often be determined by studying family members with hearing loss.
  • The buildup of earwax.
  • Exposure to loud noises, such as an air bag set off in a car crash, machines at work, power tools, gunshots, or loud music.
  • Other serious medical problems, such as Ménière's disease or an acoustic neuroma.
  • A skin reaction (dermatitis) on the outside of the ear or in the ear canal from perfume, hair dye, or wearing hearing aids.

The ear shares nerves with other parts of the face, eyes, jaw, teeth, and upper neck. Pain that feels as if it is in the ear may be coming from another part of the head or neck. This is called referred ear pain and is more common in older adults. Causes of referred ear pain can include dental problems, jaw pain (temporomandibular disorder), salivary gland infection, or a sinus infection.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have an ear problem?
This includes problems like pain, hearing loss, and possible infection.
Yes
Ear problem
No
Ear problem
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Have you had a recent head injury?
Yes
Recent head injury
No
Recent head injury
Do you have any new hearing loss?
Yes
New hearing loss
No
New hearing loss
Was the hearing loss sudden and complete?
Yes
Sudden and complete hearing loss
No
Sudden and complete hearing loss
Could you be having symptoms of a stroke?
Yes
Symptoms of stroke
No
Symptoms of stroke
Have you had an injury to your ear in the past week?
The ear can be injured by a direct hit, a very loud noise (like a gunshot or firecracker), or an object being pushed into the ear. Also, the skin, cartilage, or ear canal could be pierced, cut, or torn.
Yes
Recent ear injury
No
Recent ear injury
Do you have vertigo?
Yes
Vertigo
No
Vertigo
Is the vertigo making it hard to stand or walk?
Yes
Hard to stand or walk
No
Hard to stand or walk
Is there any pain in the ear?
Yes
Ear pain
No
Ear pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
How long has the pain lasted?
Less than 12 hours
Pain for less than 12 hours
12 to 48 hours (2 full days)
Pain for 12 to 48 hours
More than 48 hours (2 days)
Pain for more than 48 hours
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Did you take your temperature?
Yes
Temperature taken
No
Temperature taken
How high is the fever? The answer may depend on how you took the temperature.
NOTE: Most people have an average body temperature of about 98.6°F (37°C). But it can vary by a degree or more and still be considered normal. If a low body temperature is your only symptom, it’s usually not something to worry about. But be sure to watch for other symptoms.
High: 104°F (40°C) or higher, oral
High fever: 104°F (40°C) or higher, oral
Moderate: 100.4°F (38°C) to 103.9°F (39.9°C), oral
Moderate fever: 100.4°F (38°C) to 103.9°F (39.9°C), oral
Mild: 100.3°F (37.9°C) or lower, oral
Mild fever: 100.3°F (37.9°C) or lower, oral
How high do you think the fever is?
High
Feels fever is high
Moderate
Feels fever is moderate
Mild or low
Feels fever is mild
How long have you had a fever?
Less than 2 days (48 hours)
Fever for less than 2 days
At least 2 days but less than 1 week
Fever for at least 2 days but less than 1 week
1 week or more
Fever for 1 week or more
Do you have shaking chills or very heavy sweating?
Shaking chills are a severe, intense form of shivering. Heavy sweating means that sweat is pouring off you or soaking through your clothes.
Yes
Shaking chills or heavy sweating
No
Shaking chills or heavy sweating
Do you have a health problem or take medicine that weakens your immune system?
Yes
Disease or medicine that causes immune system problems
No
Disease or medicine that causes immune system problems
Yes
Symptoms of external ear infection
No
Symptoms of external ear infection
Do you have diabetes?
Yes
Diabetes
No
Diabetes
Is there any drainage or bleeding from the ear?
Yes
Drainage or bleeding from ear
No
Drainage or bleeding from ear
Do you think that a medicine may be causing your symptoms?
Think about whether the symptoms started after you began using a new medicine or a higher dose of a medicine.
Yes
Medicine may be causing symptoms
No
Medicine may be causing symptoms
Have you had any ear symptoms for more than a week?
Yes
Ear symptoms for more than 1 week
No
Ear symptoms for more than 1 week

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Temperature varies a little depending on how you measure it. For adults and children age 12 and older, these are the ranges for high, moderate, and mild, according to how you took the temperature.

Oral (by mouth) temperature

  • High: 104°F (40°C) and higher
  • Moderate: 100.4°F (38°C) to 103.9°F (39.9°C)
  • Mild: 100.3°F (37.9°C) and lower

A forehead (temporal) scanner is usually 0.5°F (0.3°C) to 1°F (0.6°C) lower than an oral temperature.

Ear temperature

  • High: 105°F (40.6°C) and higher
  • Moderate: 101.4°F (38.6°C) to 104.9°F (40.5°C)
  • Mild: 101.3°F (38.5°C) and lower

Armpit (axillary) temperature

  • High: 103°F (39.5°C) and higher
  • Moderate: 99.4°F (37.4°C) to 102.9°F (39.4°C)
  • Mild: 99.3°F (37.3°C) and lower

Symptoms of an external ear infection may include:

  • Moderate to severe pain in the outer ear.
  • Pain with chewing.
  • Redness and swelling of the ear, ear canal, or the skin around or behind the ear.

Vertigo is the feeling that you or your surroundings are moving when there is no actual movement. It may feel like spinning, whirling, or tilting. Vertigo may make you sick to your stomach, and you may have trouble standing, walking, or keeping your balance.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

If you're not sure if a fever is high, moderate, or mild, think about these issues:

With a high fever:

  • You feel very hot.
  • It is likely one of the highest fevers you've ever had. High fevers are not that common, especially in adults.

With a moderate fever:

  • You feel warm or hot.
  • You know you have a fever.

With a mild fever:

  • You may feel a little warm.
  • You think you might have a fever, but you're not sure.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Symptoms of a stroke may include:

  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
  • Sudden vision changes.
  • Sudden trouble speaking.
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
  • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
  • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Head Injury, Age 4 and Older
Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 11 and Younger

Self-Care

Home treatment may be all that is needed to relieve ear discomfort that is minor or that comes and goes. Here are some things you can do to help you feel better.

  • Apply a warm washcloth to ease ear pain.

    There may be some drainage from the ear when the heat melts earwax. Do not use a heating pad when you are in bed. You may fall asleep and burn yourself.

  • Use ice to reduce swelling from a minor injury or sunburn.

    Apply it for 15 minutes 3 or 4 times a day during the first 48 hours after the injury. The sooner you apply a cold pack, the less swelling you are likely to have. Place a cloth between the ice and your skin.

  • Be safe with medicines.

    Depending on the cause of the problem, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter medicine. For example, adults may try decongestants for cold symptoms or nasal spray steroids for allergies. Follow the instructions carefully.

  • Chew gum to relieve pressure changes in the ear.

    For example, chewing gum may help relieve pressure when you're flying in an airplane.

  • Try using an over-the-counter earwax remover.

    If your ear feels plugged but you do not have clear signs of infection, an earwax remover may help. Be sure to follow the label directions carefully.

  • Don't use ear candles.

    There is no proof that they help to remove earwax or treat other ear problems, and they can cause serious injury.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse pain.
  • New or worse signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, swelling, or a fever.
  • New or worse drainage from the ear.
  • New symptoms develop, such as hearing loss or dizziness.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

Learn more

Preparing For Your Appointment

Credits

Current as of: May 4, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine

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