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Is an Earache Ever a Medical Emergency?

Is an Earache Ever a Medical Emergency?

Every orifice on your body — eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and genitals — is a potential gateway for pathogens to enter your inner systems and cause problems. When this happens, your body is equipped to fight off most foreign invaders, and your symptoms typically resolve quickly.

When they stick around, though, you start wondering if you should see a doctor or perhaps go straight to the emergency department.

Dr. James Lee and our team here at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Woodstock, Georgia, want to help clear up the confusion around earaches so you can make an informed decision about your health. 

Here’s a brief guide about earaches that can help you figure out when to try an at-home treatment, and when to come see us right away.

Where does it hurt?

Your ear has several components, so finding relief from the pain starts with identifying the affected area.

Outer ear pain

The part of your ear you can see is called the pinna. The purpose of the grooves and curves is to catch sound waves and channel them into your ear canal. 

Like any other external body part, you can injure your pinna in an accident involving a hard blow or a sharp item. For minor lacerations, apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding and use an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. For mild bruising, ease the ache with a cold compress.

If you experience persistent bleeding or pain, you need urgent care.

Ear canal

Just inside your outer ear, your tube-like ear canal carries sound from the world around you into your inner ear. This canal is susceptible to infection if bacteria-laden water enters and settles in the tube. 

This type of infection is commonly called swimmer’s ear, because it typically occurs in people who spend a lot of time in the water, but it can occur after showering, bathing, or any activity that introduces water into the ear canal.

Ear pain — especially when the pinna is tugged or bumped — is a common symptom, as are redness, swelling, and reduced hearing.

Swimmer’s ear can stem from bacteria or fungi. You know your body needs medical help to fight off the infection when you see pus or discharge oozing from your ear (especially if it smells foul), you have a fever, and severe pain and/or itching.

Middle ear pain

Your ear canal leads to the next section, which contains three tiny bones and a small, tight membrane called your eardrum. This area constitutes the middle ear, and it’s connected to your nose and throat, so it’s a common place for germs to gather when mucus gets blocked due to a cold or allergies

Middle ear infections can range from mild to severe. You may experience:

If you see a yellow substance flow from your ear, it likely means the infection has caused your eardrum to rupture, and the fluid behind it has flowed through the opening. Although this sounds grave, it’s your body’s way of relieving the pressure, and your eardrum will heal on its own.

If you have a healthy immune system, and your ear infection is not severe, you can treat the symptoms at home with an OTC pain reliever, a warm compress, and rest.

Symptoms that persist or feel extreme may mean the infection has progressed past the point of home care. In this case, we may prescribe antibiotics.

Inner ear

Infections in your inner ear typically stem from viral illness like the flu. Common symptoms include:

Because these symptoms may also indicate other problems, such as a head injury, it’s important to come see us right away for an accurate diagnosis. 

If you get frequent inner ear infections, you may have Ménière’s disease, a disorder that causes vertigo (dizziness) and hearing loss. 

When to seek urgent care for an earache

Most minor earaches, whether caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses, resolve on their own. However, persistent and severe symptoms warrant a trip to urgent care. Here’s what you should watch for:

If you’ve tried at-home remedies and your earache isn’t getting better, or it’s getting worse, come see Dr. Lee. He can diagnose and treat your earache before it causes permanent damage.

Keep in mind that children have shorter ear canals and a higher risk for infection. Chronic ear infections can lead to inner ear damage and reduced hearing, which in turn affects the ability to speak properly. 

If you or your child has an earache, come see Dr. Lee for a thorough exam. Schedule an appointment or walk in when you need us. 

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