The best way to deal with ear pain depends on the cause, which can range from a build up of ear wax to a ruptured eardrum. While minor pain can often be relieved with over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers and cleaning out the ear, other conditions require prescription medication or even surgery. If your ear hurts for more than a few hours and you have discharge from the ear or a fever of over 101°F (about 38.5°C), see a healthcare professional promptly for treatment.
Having your ears cleaned can often reduce pain, since a build up of earwax in the ear canal can cause a feeling of fullness and discomfort. You can try to do this at home by putting mineral oil or peroxide in your ears, but don't do this if you have discharge, since it could be a sign that your eardrum is perforated. If you can't relieve the pain yourself using these methods, then see a medical professional for help. Don't try to clean out your ears by sticking a cotton swab or anything else in your ear canal, because this can push the earwax further into the ear and make things worse.
If you have an ear infection, you'll likely need to use either OTC or prescription ear drops to treat it. Analgesic ear drops can help with the pain and are usually available without a prescription, while prescription antibiotic or antifungal ear drops can help treat the underlying infection. People who are prone to ear infections or who swim a lot can also use alcohol-based ear drops on a regular basis to keep the humidity of the ear low and keep bacteria and fungus from growing.
Painkillers and Other Medications
If your ear hurts but you know that there's no infection, then it's generally best to use OTC painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. This is the case for a ruptured eardrum as well as for trauma to the outside of the ear. Taking painkillers can be helpful for referred causes of ear pain too, like trauma to the area, teething, or tempromandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Heat can act as a natural analgesic, so you may want to hold a hot water bottle or a washcloth that's been soaked in warm water and wrung out over your ear. Be careful not to let water get into your ear if you think that your eardrum has ruptured, however, since this could lead to an infection.
You may need to take other medication if you have a severe ear infection or are experiencing a lot of pressure and ear pain because of another condition, like allergies, a sinus infection, or a cold. Most people take OTC painkillers and then a more specific medication to treat the underlying problem. For instance, if your ears are stuffed and painful because of allergies, you'll likely need to take an antihistamine, but if you have a bacterial sinus infection, then you'll need to take antibiotics.
Ear Tubes, Ear Patches, and Surgery
If you repeatedly get ear infections or have a problem with the pressure in your eustachian tubes, then you may want to get tympanostomy or ear tubes. These keep the middle ear open so that the pressure remains equalized and fluid doesn't build up. These can be implanted by a medical professional with only a local anesthetic in adults, but children are generally put under general anesthesia while a surgeon implants the tubes to keep them from moving during the procedure.
A ruptured eardrum may be treated with an ear patch to cover the hole until it heals and speed up the healing time. Most of the time, however, the eardrum will heal on its own without help. If it doesn't heal properly, then you may need to get a tympanoplasty, which is a surgical repair.
When to Seek Medical Help
Since ear pain can be a sign of a serious condition, healthcare professionals recommend getting treatment if your ear hurts for more than a few hours, especially if the pain is intense or radiates to other parts of your head. This is especially important if you routinely have pain, have had previous problems with your ears, feel dizzy, have a high fever, or have muffled hearing. You should also see a medical professional promptly if you get pus or a bloody discharge from your ear, since it can be a sign that your eardrum has ruptured. Parents should take their children to the doctor if they are unusually fussy for several hours, pull on their ears repeatedly while crying, or have a high fever.