What is an earache?
Earache simply means having a sore ear. Earaches in kids commonly occur when fluid or pus from an infection builds up in the ear canal, behind the ear drum.2 The fluid puts pressure on the eardrum causing it to bulge and become painful. 1 Sometimes the ear drum bursts, releasing the fluid so the child feels better. Other times, after a middle ear infection, the ear can fill up with thick fluid that can be hard to remove – this is known as ‘Glue ear’ and becomes less common as the child grows older.2
Why children are more prone to earaches?
4 out of 5 children will get a middle ear infection at least once in their lives.*2 This is most likely to happen by the time they turn 2 years old.3 The reason that young children and infants are more likely to get an ear infection is because they are still building up their immunity and are more prone to getting colds that can cause an ear infection. Since the tube that connects the middle ear to the nose, called the Eustachian tube, is smaller in young children, it becomes more easily blocked.4 When the Eustachian tube becomes blocked, germs can grow, causing the middle ear to become infected and inflamed.2,4 Usually by the time they’re six, your child’s inner ear tubes will have matured enough to be less prone to infections. Therefore, ear infections and earache are generally less common after the age of 6.1,2
*Better Health Channel – Ear problems in children.
What causes earache?
As mentioned, infections like a cold commonly cause earache in children when fluid or pus from an infection builds up in the ear canal – this is called otitis media.2 This type of earache, caused by germs accumulating in the ear canal, places pressure on the eardrum and can lead to pain and inflammation in the ear.3
Earache can also be caused by inflammation or infection in the outer ear canal. Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, can occur if your child regularly gets water in their ear – such as when swimming. This is because a wet ear canal is easier to get infected.5
Other things that can cause earache include changes in air pressure – for example when flying on the plane during take-off and landing, injury to the ear, a build-up of ear wax and/or dental issues.6
How to spot earache symptoms
Earache symptoms can vary depending on what causes the earache. If you’re worried about your children’s earache and suspect they might have middle ear infection, always check with your doctor. Signs and symptoms of an infection can include:2,3
- Sharp, dull, or burning pain in one or both ears
- Pointing or pulling at the ear
- Hearing problems
- Irritability or crying
- Sleeping problems
- Fluid draining from the ear
Symptoms of Swimmer’s ear are similar to the symptoms listed above but may also include a squelching or popping sensation, or tenderness when your child moves their ear or jaw. They may also feel pressure or fullness in the ear.5 Since the outside of the ear can be inflamed, you may be able to see some redness and swelling. 5 The severity of pain can vary with earache – your child may only feel slightly uncomfortable, or find their pain is worse when chewing.5
Symptoms associated with earache can resolve on their own, but irritation to the outer ear canal can make symptoms worse, for example if your child scratches their infected ear.5 So, it’s important to address the infection as soon as you see the signs.
What can you do to ease earache pain in kids?
If you’re wondering how to stop an earache fast in a child, it’s good to know that often infections can clear up themselves in as little as a few hours.2 However, if your child is in distress, it’s natural you’ll want to help them to feel better as quickly as possible. Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to make them more comfortable.
Some children’s earache can be particularly distressing as it disrupts their sleep. So, if your child is old enough to use pillows, try propping them up on two or more pillows to help them sleep better. 4
Usually, middle ear infections don’t require antibiotics as they can get better on their own within a week. However, if your child is experiencing pain, you may want to try pain relief medication that’s specially designed for kids.3 Nurofen for Children helps to relieve the pain and reduce fever in children aged 3 months to 12 years. It contains ibuprofen which can help with the inflammation associated with earache and infections like cold and flu.7
Can you prevent earaches?
In addition to learning how to treat an earache in a child, it’s a good idea to take steps to prevent your child from getting an earache in the first place.
If your child attends day care, try to limit their time there as exposure to other children increases their odds of catching an infection like a cold. This can also help to prevent the spread of infections if your child is ill.2
As mentioned, Swimmer’s ear can occur in children who often swim as wet ears are more likely to get infected. Therefore, try to not let your child's ears stay so wet, for example by taking time off from swimming to reduce the likelihood of getting an infection, especially if you find they keep on getting ear infections.2
Also, keep in mind that passive smoking can increase the risk of infection, so always try to keep your child away from cigarette smoke.2
When to visit a doctor
As mentioned, an earache can clear up within a week. However, earache can be the sign of something more serious, so you should see a doctor if your child has any of the following signs or symptoms:6
- their ear pain doesn’t go away or gets worse
- they have discharge (fluid leaking) from their ear
- they feel sick or have a fever
- their hearing is getting worse
If you have any concerns about your child’s earache, speak to a healthcare professional and/or see your doctor.
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health-related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.
Always read the label. Use only as directed. Incorrect use could be harmful. If symptoms persist, see your healthcare professional. Do not use if you or your child have a stomach ulcer. Do not give to babies under 3 months of age. Seek medical advice for children under 12 months of age. Reckitt Benckiser, Auckland.
- Danishyar A, Ashurst JV. StatPearls [Internet]. Acute Otitis Media. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470332/ (accessed 28 Sep 2022).
- Victorian Government. Better Health Channel. Ear problems in children. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/ear-problems-in-children#some-precautions (accessed 28 Sep 2022).
- Thomas JP, et al. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2014;111(9):151–160.
- The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Ear infections and glue ear. Available from: https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Ear_infections_and_otitis_media/ (accessed 11 May 2020).
- Health Direct. Swimmer’s ear. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/earache (accessed 28 Sep 2022).
- Health Direct. Earache. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/earache (accessed 28 Sep 2022).
- Australian Medicines Handbook, Ibuprofen. July 2020.