Our guide to diagnosing ear pain

Published 23 February 2019  | Updated 16 May 2024  | 3 mins read

For most people, ear pain is mercifully rare. So when it does strike, it’s good to be armed with the right information to help you find a diagnosis and seek proper help.

Ear pain (Otalgia) is defined as any pain from the outer ear (the concha) to deep inside the inner ear (which includes the all-important sound converter, the cochlea).

Ear pain usually goes away after a few days, but it could be a sign of other more serious conditions. These include:

Ear infection

Do you have ear pain and a temperature of 38 ̊C or above? You might have an ear infection, flu or cold. This pain can vary anything from a dull ache to a short or sharp throbbing pain. We recommend a trip to your GP if this is what you’re experiencing.

Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa)

If your outer ear and entrance to the ear canal is painful, you might have swimmer’s ear. As the name suggests, it could be an infection caused by moisture in the ear. It’s one of the dangers of not drying your ears. Ear plugs worn while swimming can help prevent it, and ear drops can help fix it.


Most common in teething children but can also be caused by dental abscesses in adults. Abscesses are swellings caused by bacterial infections, but they don’t usually disappear on their own – they need treatment. So book a visit to your GP or dentist as soon as possible.

Blocked ear canal

If you experience any changes in your hearing, accompanied by ear pain, it could be caused by a build-up of earwax. Earwax usually falls out of your ears naturally, but sometimes it can get stuck and cause blockages. As well as pain in your ears, signs of excess earwax include a fullness in the ear – causing difficulty in hearing, itchiness, dizziness, or an ear infection.

Glue ear

Ear pain accompanied by changes in your hearing can also be caused by glue ear, otherwise known as otitis media with effusion. Glue ear causes the middle ear to become congealed with a gluey substance which fuses to the eardrum causing restricted movement and temporary hearing loss. It’s the biggest cause of hearing problems for children. Usually treated with antibiotics or in some cases grommets.

Perforated ear drum

Other causes include perforated eardrum, which can happen following a loud noise or other trauma. Don’t worry, it might sound nasty, but if small it usually repairs itself within a few weeks (although best see a GP). A total perforation is less common but would result in permanent damage.

Sore throat or tonsillitis

Earache accompanied by pain when swallowing could be caused by a sore throat or tonsillitis. Book an appointment with your GP to get it sorted.

Earache? Get in touch

If you have an earache, or believe you have any excess earwax, our experienced THCP audiologists are here to give you the best possible advice. Book an appointment online at your local THCP practice or call 0800 52 00 546.


All content here is based on information from the British Tinnitus Society: www.tinnitus.org.uk/tinnitus-and-sleep