There are many reasons why a person's ears might hurt when they swallow. The three most common causes of this pain are infections of the:
In this article, learn the best ways to treat ear pain that occurs while swallowing. We also describe when to seek advice from a doctor.
Is it an ear infection?
Ear pain is most commonly the result of an infection in the ear, nose, or throat.
Ear infections can be very painful. They may develop for no apparent reason or result from an underlying problem.
Ear infections often develop with:
- a cold
- the flu
- a sinus infection
- allergy flare-ups
Symptoms of an ear infection include:
- a buildup of fluid inside the ear
- pain in the ear
- a feeling of pressure in the ear
The majority of cases involve bacterial or viral infections in the middle ear. These infections are more common in children, and around 50 percent of infants experience a middle ear infection before their first birthdays.
Symptoms of a middle ear infection
Symptoms of an ear infection can change with age. In children, a middle ear infection can cause:
- a fever
- ear pain that may get worse if they lie down
- crying and irritability
- loss of appetite
- loss of balance
- less sleep than usual
- tugging at the affected ear
- drainage of fluid from the ear
Symptoms for adults include:
- a low-grade fever
- drainage of fluid from the ear
- problems hearing
Ear infection treatments
A doctor will prescribe antibiotics if the infection causes severe discomfort or symptoms do not improve within 1 week.
Middle ear infections can clear up on their own, particularly in adults.
Is it a nose or throat infection?
A nose or throat infection can lead to pain in the ear and throat when swallowing.
While an ear infection is the most common cause of ear pain when swallowing, infections of the nose or throat may be responsible.
The adenoids, which are small pads of immune tissue, grow larger in response to germs picked up by the nose and mouth.
The adenoids are located close to the eustachian tubes. These are canals that connect the middle ear to the upper throat and nasal cavity. If the adenoids grow so large that they block the tubes, ear pain can result. This is more likely to occur in childhood, when adenoids are the largest.
Symptoms of a nose or throat infection
With either type of infection, a person may experience:
- throat pain that worsens when swallowing
- a cough
- a dry, scratchy throat
- redness at the back of the mouth
- bad breath
- swollen glands in the neck
Several other health problems can lead to ear pain when swallowing. They include:
A doctor can treat the infection with antibiotics.
This infection is associated with tonsillitis. If tonsillitis goes untreated, pus can collect around one of the tonsils and cause severe pain. The pain is usually worse on one side. It may extend to the ear and worsen when swallowing or opening the mouth.
Some cases require surgery, during which a surgeon drains collected pus through an incision. Antibiotics may also be necessary.
The glossopharyngeal nerve is located in the head and neck, and problems with it can cause this rare, painful condition.
Symptoms can include stabbing pain around one ear, as well as pain in the throat, face, under the jaw or on the tongue.
Some people can manage symptoms with prescription pain medication, though in extreme cases, surgery is necessary.
Swimmer's ear develops when water gets into the ear canal, creating a warm, moist environment in which fungi and bacteria can multiply.
A doctor may prescribe medicated eardrops, and the infection should clear up within 7–10 days.
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction occurs when the joint that connects the jaw bone to the skull becomes damaged. A person can experience pain when chewing, talking, or swallowing. Pain can also occur in the ears.
Treatments include painkillers, warm or cold compresses, lifestyle changes, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and rest. Doctors also advise people to stop clenching the jaw and grinding the teeth, if these are issues.
This occurs when fluid collects inside the ear. While the condition is usually painless, it can cause temporary hearing loss, and the pressure caused by the buildup can occasionally cause pain.
Glue ear may not require treatment, though it can take months to go away completely. If the condition is severe, a doctor may place small tubes called grommets in the ear to drain the fluid.
Earwax or an object in the ear
An earache can result from an object becoming lodged in the ear. A doctor should remove any ear obstructions.
People can use ear drops to soften a buildup of earwax. If the wax is particularly stubborn, a doctor may have to flush the ear with water.
A bacterial infection can cause pus to collect in the teeth and gums. This buildup is called a dental abscess. Pain in the affected tooth is the primary symptom, but an abscess can also cause pain in the ear.
A person should receive treatment as soon as possible. The dentist can drain the pus and remove the abscess, which will reduce pain and other symptoms.
Problems with the ligaments and bones in the neck or skull can cause Eagle syndrome. A person may experience pain in the back of the throat, face, and ears, which can worsen when they move their head.
Surgery may be required to correct the underlying problems.
Ear pain can also result from damage. Pushing earbuds too far into the ear canal or scraping it with a finger or cotton bud can cause the eardrum to puncture.
Most damage to the ear will heal on its own. A punctured eardrum may take several months to fully heal.
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor when fever-like symptoms accompany ear pain.
Pain in the ear when swallowing can indicate an underlying condition.
If a person also experiences any of the following symptoms, contact a doctor as soon as possible:
- a high fever
- feeling hot and shivery
- fluid leaking from the ear
- hearing loss
- swelling in or around the ear
- an earache that lasts for more than a few days
- a severe sore throat
- frequently reoccurring ear infections
Also, see a doctor right away if pain in the ear accompanies a long-term medical condition, such as diabetes, a heart, lung, kidney, or neurological disease, or an illness that weakens the immune system.
Ear pain when swallowing can be very uncomfortable. However, a person can manage many of the common causes at home.
If an infection is responsible for the pain, it may go away on its own or with prescription medication.