Your ears are small organs with many intricate parts. If any of these parts malfunction or get damaged, you may experience hearing problems and/or ear pain.
Ear anatomy basics
Medical professionals separate the ear into three sections: the outer, middle, and inner ear.
The outer ear includes all parts of the ear you can see. Your earlobes, ear cartilage, and ear canal are all part of the outer ear.
The middle ear begins at the end of the ear canal, covering the space inside the eardrum. Behind the eardrum are three tiny bones that help to send sound signals to your brain.
Next is the inner ear. It contains the auditory and vestibular systems, which are responsible for hearing and balance. Damage to the inner ear can cause you to feel dizzy (vertigo).
Common ear complaints
Some of the most common problems with the ears include:
There are many reasons why you may experience one or more of these symptoms. Here are some plausible causes and what to do about it:
Ear pain is a common complaint, and the cause can be primary (originating in the ear) or secondary (not originating in the ear).
In kids, one of the most common causes of ear pain is a middle ear infection. Ear infections also can occur in the ear canal, known as "swimmer's ear."
Other signs of an ear infection include ear drainage and itchy ears. For children, fussiness and tugging at the ears may indicate an ear infection.
If you suspect that you or your child has an ear infection, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider. They may prescribe over-the-counter antibiotics and/or pain relievers to help remedy the infection.
Increased sinus pressure from colds, respiratory viruses and allergies can cause swelling and pain in the ear. In more severe cases, there may be fluid trapped in the eustachian tube, which connect the ears to the nasal and sinus cavities.
Sometimes, yawning or chewing can often help relieve the pain. If the pain persists medication or surgery may be required.
Air pressure changes
Changes in air pressure can also cause ear pain. As with sinus pressure, you can usually relieve ear pain from air pressure changes with jaw activity e.g. yawning or chewing gum. Ear pain from air pressure changes are common during airplane flights or scuba dives.
In some cases, ear pain can be due to loud noise or a blast injury. Non-ear related issues include temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, arthritis and inflammation, dental problems and headaches. Get medical help if your ear pain does not go away on its own.
Ringing in the ears
Ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, can vary in its severity. Time of day, diet, even your own mental state, can affect the intensity of the sound. It can also be temporary or permanent.
A common culprit for tinnitus is loud noise. Many report hearing a ringing sound in their ears after a concert or after hearing a sudden, loud sound.
Sometimes, tinnitus goes away on its own. However, if your tinnitus is a result of damage to the inner ear, it may be ongoing and accompany hearing loss.
If you suffer from tinnitus, there are a variety of tinnitus treatment options, including:
There is no cure for tinnitus, but it is possible to manage and cope with it to live a normal life.
If you have clogged ears, the things you hear likely sound muffled.
Four common causes of clogged ears are impacted earwax, sinus pressure, fluid in the ear and noise damage.
Impacted earwax is common in aging adults. This is because our ears, like other parts of our body, tend to work less efficiently as we get older. When our ears struggle to expel excess earwax, it can build up in your ear.
If your clogged ear is due to impacted earwax, a licensed hearing professional can clean the excess earwax out your ears. Do not try to remove the earwax yourself with cotton swabs, ear candling or other DIY remedies. You risk damaging your ear or pushing the earwax further into your ear canal.
Fluid in the ear can be a symptom of an ear infection. In this case, ear pain and discharge often accompany your clogged ears. If you think you may have an ear infection, speak to your doctor. Children under six months old should see a doctor immediately for middle ear infections.
Water trapped in ear
Fluid in the ear can also occur when water gets trapped in your ears. This can happen when you go swimming or take a bath, for example. Tips for draining water from your ears include:
Water in your ears can be uncomfortable, but usually goes away on its own.
Many of the symptoms listed in this article have the same causes. This is especially true for itchy ears. Itchy ears can be due to an infection, earwax blockage, or even allergies.
Unlike the other symptoms however, itchy ears can also be caused by skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, or by irritation from hair or skin products, hearing aids, earbuds or earrings.
In rare cases, itchy ears may be caused by diabetes or liver disease.
If your itchy ears are due to allergies, irritants, or a skin condition, you can likely treat it on your own. Address the cause of your itchy ears with allergy medication, skin treatments like dandruff shampoo, or by switching the skin care products you use.
However, if you suspect your itchy ears are due to an ear infection or a more serious disease, speak to your doctor immediately for treatment options.
Scratching itchy ears can make them worse
Although it may be tempting, you should avoid scratching your itchy ears. This can make the problem worse. Skin scratching makes the nerves that feel itchy grow. The more you scratch, the more you’ll itch!
Finally, if your itchy ears are due to earwax blockage or your hearing aids, a hearing professional can help. Hearing aids help many people with hearing loss hear clearly. They should be comfortable to ensure you can wear your hearing aids long enough to reap the many benefits.
How to find help
(2022). Causes and treatments for ear pain and earaches. Healthy Hearing.
(2022). Why do my ears feel clogged? Healthy Hearing.