By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Ear pain may not be life threatening but it can be miserable, uncomfortable and worrying. When your ears are painful, everyday life sounds and feel different. And if your baby or child is suffering from ear pain the experience can be distressing for you both. You may feel a dull ache or an intense pain. You may also suffer a fever, or leakage of fluid from the ear. Children display fussiness and cry more. What does it mean when your ears are hurting? Are any cases of ear pain serious? What can you do to ease ear pain and feel better? In particular, are there any natural remedies for ears that hurt?
Why Are My Ears Hurting? Causes of Ear Pain
Ear pain can be difficult to pin down as there are many causes, depending on your exact symptoms and experience. Ear infections are a common cause of ear pain.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around four in every 1,000 Americans are affected with an ear infection each year. In children, ear pain is usually the sign of an ear infection; it's one of the most common child illnesses.
In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, three out of four babies will have suffered from a middle ear infection by the time they are three years old. Ear infections can be acute or chronic, meaning they appear and disappear quickly, or they last a long time and recur at intervals.
Ear infections are caused by blockages in the Eustachian tube which runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat and drains fluid. Anything that causes a blockage can cause an infection in the ear. For example, allergies, cold and flu, and irritants such as tobacco smoke.
In adults, ear pain can also be due to conditions that affect other parts of the body, such as arthritis of the jaw, a sinus infection, a sore throat or a tooth infection.
Adults and children can suffer ear pain when flying (the change in altitude and pressure causes painful ears), or when there's something stuck in the ear, impacted ear wax or a ruptured or perforated ear drum. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery Foundation one in 10 children, one in 20 adults, and more than one-third of the elderly suffer ear pain from compacted and excessive ear wax.
Causes and Symptoms of Ear Infections
A middle ear infection, also called otitis media, is an inflammation and infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is just behind the ear drum.
An outer ear infection (also called external otitis, or swimmer's ear) is usually caused by a bacterial infection in the skin that lines the ear canal leading to the ear drum.
The pain in the ear may get worse when you touch or tug on the outer ear. It's called swimmer's ear because this condition is often caused by excessive water exposure, when the skin becomes moist and transforms into an ideal environment for bacteria.
This type of ear infection is usually treated with ear drops to reinstate the anti-bacterial environment of the ear, as well as antibiotics. In some cases you develop acute diffuse otitis externa, a swelling of the ear canal, which is more extensive and painful. Chronic otitis externa lasts for more than three months and causes extensive swelling and often a skin rash over the ear.
Is Ear Pain Dangerous?
Usually painful ears are nothing to worry about but you should consult your doctor if the pain persists because of the risk of severe infection. This infection (malignant otitis externa) is dangerous because it can spread into the bone and cartilage of the skull and can be fatal if not treated. Children can suffer hearing loss and their speech can be affected if they suffer from recurrent ear infections.
Once you've checked with your physician that your ear pain has not developed into a severe infection, there are a number of things you can do to ease the pain. We've looked at the medical research to bring you natural remedies for painful ears.
Top 10 Natural Remedies for Painful Ears
1. Sugar Gum Can Help Prevent and Treat Painful Ears
Can chewing sugar-free gum help to heal your ears? Could a sweetener have an effect on your child's painful ears? Xylitol is a natural sugar found in strawberries, raspberries and plums which is often used as the sweetener in "sugar-free" gum and candy.
Xylitol helps prevent the growth of Streptococcus mutans, a type of bacteria that causes dental cavities, and also prevents the growth of Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause ear infections.
A 1998 study from the University of Oulu, Finland tested xylitol in the form of chewing gum, lozenges and syrup five times a day against placebo on 857 children.
Here's a startling fact. Over two months, the gum reduced the risk of developing middle ear infections by 40 percent. The syrup was also effective although lozenges didn't produce positive results. The same researchers carried out a study in 1996 on 300 children, which had similarly positive results on the five-times-a-day dosing schedule. However, taking xylitol only three times a day has not been proved to be effective. It can be difficult to encourage a child to get the five doses a day, every day, for some months.
2. Herbal Ear Drops As A Painful Ears Remedy
It seems an oily mixture of mullein, garlic, St. John's Wort, and calendula can help ease painful ears due to ear infections.
A 2001 study from the Pediatric and Adolescent Ambulatory Community Clinic of General Health Services, Israel looked at 250 children with eardrum pain and compared the herbal ear drops with a standard anesthetic ear drop.
The researchers found the herbal preparation was just as effective as the standard drops for treating pain in the ears. Take care - garlic oil is harmful if it's too strong. These herbal drops contain low levels of garlic.
3. Avoid Pacifiers to Cut Down Baby's Risk of Ear Infections
Ear infections can cause highly painful ears, particularly in children. There are some things you can do, however, to cut down your child's risk of ear infection and painful ears.
For example, a 2008 study from the Julius Center for Health Science and Primary Care, University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands suggests using pacifiers increases the risk of infection.
The study found recurrent ear infections affected babies and young children twice as often when they used pacifiers or dummies. It is thought that bacteria from the pacifier migrate through the nose into the middle ear. Many experts suggest stopping pacifier use at the first sign of an ear infection, to prevent recurrent infections.
4. Can Homeopathy Remedy Painful Ears?
For painful ears caused by a middle ear infection - acute otitis media - homeopathy may help. Two studies, one 1997 study from Haunersches Kinderspital, München, Germany and one 1999 study by H Harrison entitled "A randomized comparison of homoeopathic and standard treatment of glue ear in children," found benefits from using homeopathic remedies such as Pulsatilla, Belladonna, Aconitum napellus and Ferrum phosphoricum on children with ear infections.
However, test groups have been small and research in 1985 by P Mossinger tested the effectiveness of Pulsatilla D2 in treating otitis media, but found it was no better than placebo.
5. Breast Feeding Can Help Prevent Painful Ears
Experts suggest that breast feeding can help prevent middle ear infections, perhaps because the breast milk itself may inhibit the growth of bacteria that causes ear infections.
Many studies such as a 1993 project by Steele Memorial Children's Research Center, Tucson, AZ claim children who are exclusively breast fed have significantly fewer middle ear infections, and ear pain, than formula-fed babies.
6. Quit Smoking to Prevent Recurrent Painful Ears
Avoiding cigarette smoke, and making sure your children are not exposed to cigarette smoke, is one of the best ways to prevent painful ears due to middle ear infections.
Cigarette smoke inhaled through the nose can trigger irritation and swelling in the ear. A 1992 study from Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, University of North Carolina found the children in a daycare center that were exposed to cigarette smoke at home had a 38 percent higher risk of middle ear infections than the children whose parents didn't smoke.
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1996 to 2011 there has been a 30 percent drop in the number of doctor visits from children with ear infections - researchers suggest this is due to a decline in parents smoking.
7. Is Snoring A Cry for Help From Our Ears?
Some kids snore and some kids don't, just like some people get ear infections and some don't, right? Research from Kentucky suggests that the two conditions may not be so random.
In 2008, doctors with the University of Louisville in Kentucky, led by Dr. David Gozal with the Division of Pediatric Sleep Medicine, looked into a rumor that "habitually snoring children" have a higher prevalence of recurrent otitis media (middle ear infection). Using over 16,300 parental surveys of 5-7 year old children in Louisville, Kentucky, the team found that 11.3% of the children were habitual snorers, and that nearly 45% of these snorers had a history of recurrent otitis media. (Recurrent otitis media was reported in only 29% of the non-snoring children). The team concludes that "habitual snoring is associated with a significant increase in the prevalence of recurrent otitis media."
Knowing that your child snores is a warning sign to keep an eye out for ear infections, so that the condition can be addressed as soon as possible. (Read more about foods that help to stop snoring.)