Why Does My Ear Hurt When I Swallow?

If you experience pain when swallowing, it may interfere with your daily activities or quality of life, or simply make you wonder what could be causing it. There are many reasons why your ear could hurt when you swallow, but most commonly, it is caused by infections of the ear, nose, or throat.

Causes of ear pain when swallowing 

Ear infections

Ear infections are a common cause of ear pain when swallowing. They occur most often in children. According to the journal JAMA Pediatrics, roughly 50% of children get at least one ear infection by the age of two (Paul & Moreno, 2020). However, ear infections can occur at any age. 

The reason why these infections can cause your ear to hurt is because the ear and throat are connected by the eustachian tube, which opens and closes as you swallow. In addition, infections can cause inflammation and the collection of mucus in the eustachian tube. This can cause pressure to build up, causing pain.

Ear infections are most often caused by viral agents, and less commonly bacterial organisms that proliferate in the middle ear. The pain from ear infections is typically caused by fluid buildup, swelling, and irritation.

Common signs of ear infections include: 

  • A fever
  • Pulling or rubbing the ear (but teething is also a common cause of ear pulling in infants without fever or other signs of infection) 
  • Pain when swallowing 
  • Muffled hearing
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Lack of appetite 
  • Fluid coming out of the ear

Middle ear infections

Middle ear infections, otherwise known as otitis media, are an infection of the space behind your eardrum (Paul & Moreno, 2020). These occur when fluid in the middle ear becomes trapped and infected. This type of infection is most common in children.

Treatment for middle ear infections

Treatment for middle ear infections involves antibiotics, Over-the-Counter (OTC) pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), and sometimes anesthetic ear drops that are used to relieve the pain associated with the infection.

Swimmer’s ear 

Swimmer’s ear is another type of ear infection, but it affects the external ear canal, an outer part of the ear. Swimmer’s ear occurs most often when water gets trapped in your ear from showering or swimming. When this happens, it creates an ideal environment for bacteria or fungi to flourish.

Treatment for swimmer’s ear

Treatment for swimmer’s ear typically involves cleaning of the ear canal by your doctor using a suction device. Cleaning the ear canal will help therapeutic eardrops flow to the infected areas of the ear. Medications used to treat swimmer’s ear include antibiotics as well as antifungals, steroids to reduce inflammation, and an acidic solution to restore your ear’s natural environment.

Throat Infections

Throat infections are usually caused by bacteria like streptococcus, and viruses such as rhinoviruses (the common cold), influenza types A and B, and mononucleosis (Epstein-Barr virus).

Symptoms of throat infections include:

  • Swollen tonsils  
  • Enlarged glands in your neck 
  • Pain when swallowing 
  • Scratchy or dry throat 
  • White patches on your tonsils 
  • Hoarse voice

Treatment for throat infections

The treatment for throat infections will depend on the illness. Antibiotics are used to treat strep throat or other bacterial causes, but a sore throat associated with the common cold can be relieved by gargling with warm salt water or using cough drops. Viral infections typically resolve on their own in 5-7 days and do not require antibiotics.

Sinus Infections

Another reason you may develop pain in your ear when swallowing is a sinus infection, otherwise known as rhinosinusitis. A sinus infection is a type of upper respiratory tract infection. Sinus infections are one of the most common conditions treated by doctors: every year in the United States, one in seven adults is diagnosed with sinusitis, which amounts to more than for 30 million sufferers a year (Aring & Chan, 2011).

Symptoms of sinus infections include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Facial pain or pressure, especially when pressing on sinuses 
  • Presence of nasal drainage 
  • Reduced sense of smell
  • Pain in the ear when swallowing

Treatment of sinus infections

Treatment for sinus infections can involve a variety of at-home self-care methods, as well as medicines, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Common medications prescribed for sinus infections include nasal sprays, nasal corticosteroids such as Flonase, decongestants, allergy medications, and OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is a condition that occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not open or close in the way that it should. When this happens, stomach acid travels back up into the esophagus, causing symptoms such as sore throat and pain in the ear while swallowing.

Symptoms of acid reflux include: 

  • Bloating
  • Dry cough
  • Burping
  • Heartburn
  • Hiccups
  • Nausea
  • Sore Throat
  • Vomiting 
  • Taste of food or stomach acid in the throat
  • Pain in the ear while swallowing 

Treatment for acid reflux

Treatment for acid reflux may include OTC drugs such as TUMS or Rolaids, stomach acid reducers such as Pepcid or Zantac, and proton-pump inhibitors, such as Nexium or Prilosec (Patti, 2016).

Rare causes of ear pain when swallowing:

Rare causes of ear pain when swallowing include dental conditions such as a dental abscess or temporomandibular joint dysfunction. In addition, other conditions such as peritonsillar abscess, glossopharyngeal neuralgia, glue ear, eagle syndrome, or ear damage can also cause pain from swallowing.

Your doctor may order further lab tests, such as blood tests, x-rays, or CT scans to determine whether you have any of these conditions.

How do I stop my ears from hurting when I swallow? 

You may not be able to get your ears to stop hurting completely without medication, but there are some helpful home remedies for ears that can help alleviate pain:

  • Elevating your upper body during sleep 
  • Cool-mist humidifiers 
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Applying a cold or hot compress to the side of your head over your ear, or to your throat 

When to see a doctor? 

Treatment for ear pain when swallowing depends on the cause of the problem. But experiencing ear pain when swallowing is something you should never ignore. When your ear pain is persistent, you should always see a doctor. Lingering infections should not be ignored. The following are signs that you should seek medical care: 

When to see a doctor:

  • You have persistent pain in your ears or throat 
  • A fever of 38°C (100.4°F) or higher
  • You are experiencing severe throat or ear pain
  • Your hearing seems muffled 
  • Dizziness
  • Blood or pus drainage from the ear 
  • Frequent heartburn 
  • Acid reflux

Get help from an online doctor 

To make it easier to take charge of your own health, you can now connect with a board-certified clinician on the DrHouse app in less than 15 minutes. Through this app, medical professionals at DrHouse can help you swiftly address any non-emergency medical issue.

DrHouse is a telemedicine app that allows you to connect with a doctor on a video call from the privacy of your own home. A board-certified clinician will quickly and efficiently determine the cause of your ear pain, or any other condition that is bothering you. With DrHouse, you will receive personalized care, and you can quickly get the prescriptions you need to relieve problems such as the ear pain you may have when swallowing.

There are many advantages to the DrHouse services, such as same-day in-person visits with a doctor at a nearby clinic or seeing an online doctor via telemedicine from home.

Seeing a doctor from home is convenient, cost-efficient, and safer in the age of the pandemic. It is also helpful to be able to stay at home when you are feeling ill. However, if you need to or would simply prefer to see a doctor face-to-face, we can make that possible for you as well. 

With DrHouse, you can get prescription refills, and have all of your questions answered in a short period of time. You don’t have to worry about scheduling an appointment at a later date. With the help of DrHouse, you will be feeling better in no time.

Key takeaways

There are many different causes of ear pain when swallowing, the most common being ear, nose, and throat infections. A variety of  medications may be used to treat these conditions, such as antibiotics, steroids, and nasal sprays. These can effectively eliminate the infection and the pain you are experiencing. In addition, home remedies such as cool-mist humidifiers, drinking plenty of fluids, and elevating your upper body may also help relieve your ear pain when swallowing.

If you are experiencing persistent ear pain when swallowing, do not delay seeking professional medical treatment. Infections left untreated may not clear up on their own, and may actually worsen and even spread. With DrHouse, you can connect to a board-certified doctor in 15 minutes. We can quickly and efficiently get you the treatment you need, and help resolve your problem of ear pain when swallowing.

Sources:

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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