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What’s The Difference Between An Earache & An Ear Infection?

Dr. Renee

Q: Can a cold cause ear pain? What’s the difference between an earache and an infection? – G.S.

A: Ear pain is usually termed an earache and can be caused by a cold. Earaches due to a cold can come with other symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, fever and green or yellow mucus in the nose.An earache can also be caused by ear infection because that is just the term used for the pain in your ear. The dull, sharp, or burning earache will go away with the cold. Since colds are caused by viruses, the best you can do is treat the cold symptoms and wait out the infection. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) can help ease your earache.

However, in some people, particularly in children under age 8 and adults who smoke, a second infection occurs inside the ear when bacteria cause pus and fluid to fill up the space behind the eardrum

In addition to the symptoms of a cold, an ear infection usually comes with loss of appetite, drainage from the ear, vertigo and difficulty hearing.

Earache caused by a cold can be treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Conversely, many ear infections are caused by bacteria, and can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

If you have an ear infection, you may also:

  • Have difficulty sleeping
  • Feel dizzy
  • Feel feverish

To find out whether you have an ear infection, your doctor will use an otoscope to look for signs of infection inside your ear such as:

  • Bulging eardrum due to the fluid and pus behind the eardrum; the fluid build-up is called “effusion”
  • An eardrum responding less flexibly than normal; this is checked using a pneumatic otoscope

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