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Earache or Otalgia is a medical condition often characterized by pain in either one or both the ears. This pain can be dull or burning, or can be constant or temporary. Otalgia is most often divided into two categories - 'primary otalgia' and 'referred otalgia'. Primary otalgia is basically the pain originating within the ear (for instance pain in the ear canal), while referred otalgia is pain originating outside the ear (pain in the earlobe for instance).
What Causes Ear Pain?
Though otalgia is not associated with any particular ear disease, there do exist a few medical conditions which are known to cause mild to severe pain in the ear. Interestingly, some of these conditions are not even directly related to the ear.
Ear infection is one of the most common ear problem, and even though it heals on its own after a few days, the pain associated with it can make it very difficult for the person to carry on with his day-to-day activities. In children, ear pain is most often caused by fluid build up, which blocks the Eustachian tube and results in stuffiness, pain, and ear infection. In some cases, the infection is caused as a result of ear canal irritation, cold, and water/soap residue after bathing. If a child is suffering from ear infection, you will notice that he is also experiencing fever, ear drainage, irritability, etc.
Although ear infections, and resultant pain, are common in children, the same in adults cannot be ruled out. Being very sensitive, the eardrum can easily get damaged. In fact, you can end up damaging your ear bud when you are scraping earwax using an ear bud, and even puncture it at times. Any sort of damage to the inner ear can trigger severe earache. Earwax is supposed to fall out naturally, which doesn't happen in case of some people. On the contrary, it hardens and plugs the ear, thus causing a great deal of pain.
There are chances that what the individual perceives as ear pain is actually 'referred' pain', originating from some other part. For example, people often complain of sharp stabbing pain in the ear when swallowing. This is actually the referred pain triggered by the irritation of nerves connected to the ear, which are actively involved when swallowing. Other conditions which trigger referred otalgia include tooth problems like tooth abscess or impacted tooth, jawbone problems such as jaw arthritis, throat problems like sore throat, sinus infection, etc. Even the sensory aura that precedes a migraine is known to trigger severe ear pain in some people.
Diagnosis
The cause of ear pain can be established after taking into consideration the medical history of the patient. In case of sharp ear pain, the foremost thing to be done is to eliminate the chances of cancer, especially in adults who indulge in alcohol and drug abuse. Diagnosis includes medical examination of ear, nose, mastoid, and throat. While a child may not be able to tell that he is experiencing ear pain, he will make it obvious by tugging/rubbing his ear or demonstrating irritable behavior. He might also find it difficult to hear low sounds and maintain balance. It is wise to consult a doctor if your child is showing any of these signs.
While ear pain in itself is a symptom, it is often accompanied by various other symptoms which play a crucial role in the diagnosis of the underlying condition. At times, the medical practitioner would be keen on observing these symptoms for a brief period, and hence may delay administering any antibiotics for ear infection to rule out misdiagnoses. Ear infection can be treated easily, but considering that ear pain can be a symptom of some other complication, one can't afford to turn blind eye to the same.
Ear Pain Relief
Prescribed Medication: Otalgia can be cured by treating the underlying conditions which cause this sharp pain. In fact, this is the ideal method in case of referred otalgia. The person may have to take prescribed or over-the-counter medication to get relief from pain. In case of severe pain, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics, after taking the persons medical history into consideration. While over-the-counter medication, such as aspirin, can be taken when the pain is mild in the initial stages, they are less likely to work in case of severe pain; in which case, the person should consult a doctor who will prescribe necessary medication.
Home Remedies: Other than prescribed medication, there are several home remedies for ear ache. Of these, the most popular are to put a few drops of lukewarm oil or juice of basil leaves in the affected ear. Hydrogen peroxide and peppermint leaves juice can also be used to treat ear pain. Eating chewing gum also helps, as it contracts the muscles and opens the Eustachian tube, thus providing relief from the sharp pain in ear. (While these home remedies are known to provide relief, they should not be used to treat ear pain in children without consulting the doctor.)
Age-old idiom 'prevention is better than cure' is apt when it comes to sharp ear pain. Though there are several ways to treat otalgia and the underlying conditions, it's better to prevent it in the very first place. Simple measures like cleaning the ears of any residue after bathing, especially in case of children, are of great help. Similarly, avoiding smoke, controlling allergies, not using ear buds, and other such simple measures can help in preventing conditions which are likely to cause pain in the ear.
Ear pain, irrespective of whether it is sharp or mild, can be pretty discomforting. Even worse, it can be a symptom of some underlying condition; in which case it can only ascertained after undergoing a proper diagnostic procedure. Taking these things into consideration, one should not take ear pain lightly, but should instead consult a doctor and opt for diagnosis before things get out of hand.
Disclaimer: This article is purely for the purpose of providing information, and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice.