What Will an ER Do for Severe Ear Pain?

When the piercing discomfort of severe ear pain strikes, it can be an alarming and distressing experience. In such moments, the emergency room (ER) becomes a source of relief, offering swift and specialized care to address the root cause of your distress. In this article, we delve into what you can expect when seeking help for severe ear pain at the ER. From pain management to diagnostic procedures and treatment options, understanding the ER’s approach can provide valuable insights to those in need and help ease the uncertainty that often accompanies such distressing situations.

Where Does Ear Pain Occur? 

Earaches and ear infections can occur in various parts of the ear and its surrounding structures. The location of the ear pain can provide clues about the underlying cause. The three main areas where ear pain can occur are:

The Outer Ear

Pain in the outer ear is typically felt on the visible and exterior parts of the ear known as the pinna or auricle. 

The Middle Ear

The middle ear is located behind the eardrum and includes the ear ossicles (bones) and eustachian tubes, small tubes that connect the nose and throat

The Inner Ear

The inner ear is a complex structure in the ear that is responsible for hearing and balance. 

child with ear pain after swimming

What Causes Severe Ear Pain? 

Several conditions can cause severe ear pain in both adults and children. Here are some examples:

Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

This is an infection or inflammation of the outer ear canal, often caused by water becoming trapped in the ear canal. Cases of swimmer’s ear can lead to severe ear pain, itching, redness, and sometimes discharge. Swimmer’s ear is particularly common in young children

Otitis Media

Otitis media is an infection or inflammation of the middle ear. A middle ear infection can occur when germs from the nose and throat make their way through the eustachian tube. Otitis media can cause intense ear pain, fever, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, and a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear. 

Middle Ear Barotrauma

This occurs when there’s a rapid change in air pressure, such as during air travel or diving. The pressure difference can cause the eardrum to become severely painful, possibly causing the eardrum to burst

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. Dysfunction can lead to a buildup of pressure in the middle ear, causing ear pain, muffled hearing, and a feeling of fullness in the ear.

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders

Problems with the jaw joint can sometimes cause referred pain to the ear. TMJ disorders can lead to severe ear pain, jaw pain, headaches, and difficulty opening and closing the mouth.

child wearing headphones at a desk

Acute Otitis Interna (Labyrinthitis)

This is an infection or inflammation of the inner ear, causing symptoms such as severe ear pain, vertigo (dizziness), nausea, vomiting, and hearing loss.

Trigeminal Neuralgia

Although primarily a disorder affecting the trigeminal nerve (which controls facial sensation), trigeminal neuralgia can sometimes cause severe pain that radiates to the ear, along with facial pain.

Perforated Eardrum

A tear or hole in the eardrum can lead to intense ear pain, especially if the tear is due to infection, trauma, or pressure changes.

Foreign Object in the Ear

Foreign objects, even small objects, lodged in the ear canal can cause severe pain, discomfort, and potential damage to the ear structures.

Tooth Infections

Infections of the teeth or gums can sometimes radiate pain to the ear, leading to severe ear discomfort.

What Will an ER Do for Severe Ear Pain? 

When you go to the emergency room for severe ear pain, the medical staff will take several steps to diagnose the underlying cause of the pain and provide appropriate treatment. Here’s what you can generally expect:

doctor examining a child's ear

Assessment and Diagnosis

A healthcare provider will start by taking your medical history, including any previous ear infections, minor or major, as well as other ear issues, recent illnesses, and injuries. They will also ask about your symptoms, the duration of the pain, and any associated symptoms like fever, hearing loss, or discharge.

The doctor will perform a physical examination, which involves examining the affected ear and possibly the other ear as well for comparison. They may use an otoscope to look inside the ear and assess the eardrum and ear canal.

If the pain is severe, the ER staff may provide pain relief, which could include prescription or over-the-counter pain relievers. They might also offer numbing ear drops to help alleviate discomfort.

Depending on the suspected cause of the ear pain, the doctor might order certain tests, such as an ear swab to collect a sample from the ear canal for bacterial or viral cultures in cases of suspected infection. Sometimes, a CT scan or MRI may be ordered to get a detailed view of the ear structures. 


Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the ear pain. If an infection is suspected, the ER doctor might prescribe antibiotics or antiviral medications. If there’s a foreign object lodged in the ear, they will carefully remove it.

In cases of barotrauma, they might provide recommendations to alleviate the pressure difference. For severe conditions like a perforated eardrum, they will advise on appropriate care.

Depending on the diagnosis, the ER doctor might recommend follow-up care with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist or another appropriate healthcare provider. If the situation is urgent or requires specialized treatment, they might arrange for a referral if they are unable to handle a situation on-site.

When dealing with ear pain, erring on the side of caution is always wise. If the pain is intense, accompanied by fever, hearing loss, dizziness, or other severe symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Altus Emergency Centers Can Help! 

In times of intense ear pain, seeking prompt and expert care can prevent infection from worsening and make all the difference in your comfort and recovery. Altus Emergency Centers stand ready to support you, equipped with a team of experienced medical professionals who understand the urgency of your situation. Their dedication to compassionate care and their state-of-the-art facilities ensure that you receive the highest level of attention when dealing with severe ear pain. Visit our website to learn more!