A variety of conditions can result in ear problems. While an infection is often the culprit of ear pain, many other circumstances may produce an earache as a symptom. A diagnosis from a physician is typically required to determine the exact cause of most ear problems.
Otis media, or a middle ear infection, is characterized by deep ear pain, as well as fluid present within the ear. Similarly, a pimple that can be seen in the ear canal may be a minor infection. While ear infections may clear up on their own within one to two weeks, a physician can make an accurate diagnosis, and determine whether or not a treatment, such as use of antibiotics, is needed. He or she can also prescribe pain medication if needed.
Severe ear problems should be examined by a doctor. If an ear, as well as the area surrounding it, is red and swollen, a serious infection may be present. Another pressing condition requiring immediate medical attention is a ruptured eardrum, which involves a very sharp, sudden pain followed by thick, pus-filled or bloody drainage leaking from the ear canal. Mastoiditis, an infection of the bone behind the ear, may present itself through headache pain and redness, or tenderness, behind the ear. Alternatively, this could signify an enlarged lymph node as well; both cases do require medical attention.
Other ear problems can be benign. For example, during or following a flight, barotrauma, or "popping" in the ears, can result from changes in altitude or pressure. Barotrauma typically fades quickly; however, if pain is severe or lasts for hours, a doctor visit may be required for treatment. Otitis externa, or "swimmer's ear," is an infection that is usually easily treated. Swimmer's ear often involves a swollen ear that itches or hurts when it is pulled on.
Some ear problems may seem entirely ear-related when, in fact, they are symptoms of another condition altogether. If ear pain occurs while biting down, and coincides with tooth pain, it may be a tooth issue requiring dental treatment. Ear pain during jaw cracking, or in conjunction with jaw tenderness, may be a symptom of Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ), which is actually a jaw joint disorder. Severe pain, or lack of improvement within two weeks, warrants a doctor or dentist visit. Fluid, pressure and stuffiness unable to be cleared by coughing or swallowing, combined with cold symptoms, may actually be a blocked eustacian tube, which may either go away on its own, or need to be checked by a doctor if it persists for days.