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What Causes Ear Pain When Swallowing?

By Caitlin Shih
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ear pain when swallowing is most commonly associated with a variety of underlying infections. The throat and the ear are closely connected through the nervous system, so it is likely that an affliction to one area will affect the other. For example, a typical ear infection of the middle ear will often cause a blockage in the Eustachian tubes directly connecting both the middle ear and the pharynx and may, hence, lead to ear pain when swallowing. Conversely, a sore throat can lead to ear pain because the cranial nerves directly connect the two body parts. Swimmer's ear, tonsillitis and laryngitis are further examples of infections that can cause ear pain when swallowing.

The Eustachian tubes of the ear link the middle ear directly to the back of the throat, performing the functions of pressure equalization and mucus drainage. When infected, the tubes may swell, become restricted and will often fill up with excess mucus, providing further environments for bacterial growth. While ear infections are the most common affliction of the middle ear, especially in children, any disorder that impairs the Eustachian tubes can lead to ear pain when swallowing. Decongestants may help ease a blocked Eustachian tube, but ear infections require antibiotic treatment in order to fully heal.

Just as an ear infection can evoke pain in the throat, a throat infection can lead to pain in the ears due to the direct connection between the two areas through both the Eustachian tubes and the cranial nerves. Most cases of sore throat are viral infections, and treatment will generally center around easing symptoms, provided the infection is not extremely severe. Bacterial infections, such as strep throat, can be cured with antibiotics.

Swimmer's ear is an inflammation of the ear canal, involving primarily the outer ear as opposed to the inner ear. In most cases, water becomes clogged in the ear after swimming, especially in lakes and oceans, providing an environment prone to infection. Typically, the only direct symptom of swimmer's ear is acute pain in the ear, particularly when it is touched or pulled, but throat irritation and ear pain when swallowing may also be secondary manifestations of the infection.

Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils caused by infection, either viral or bacterial. In most cases, tonsillitis will cause the patient to exhibit mild to severe versions of many common symptoms of sore throat, including ear pain when swallowing. If the infection is bacterial, tonsillitis can be treated with antibiotics. Otherwise, over-the-counter medications and home remedies can ease symptoms of tonsillitis, and in severe, chronic cases, the tonsils can be surgically removed.

Laryngitis refers to an inflammation of the larynx that can be caused by a variety of factors, including infection, overuse of the vocal chords and excessive smoking. Patients will usually experience a loss or hoarseness of voice along with many symptoms typical of sore throat and cold or flu. Many cases of laryngitis will involve difficulty swallowing and, subsequently, possible ear pain when swallowing as well. The treatment of laryngitis depends on its cause. Situations such as infection and acid reflux can be treated with medication, while vocal chord disorders may require speech therapy or surgery.

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Discussion Comments
By anon987243 — On Feb 01, 2015

"...ear infections require antibiotic treatment in order to fully heal." But some (most) ear infections caused by viruses, rather than bacteria, so this isn't true.

By discographer — On Oct 14, 2013

I have this symptom because of a middle ear infection. It hurts when I chew and swallow and also when I yawn or cough. I've been putting a cold pack on that ear and I think it's helping.

By fify — On Oct 13, 2013

@literally45-- The connection between the throat and the ears is actually very apparent. I've always known that when I swallow, a change occurs in my ears. Swallowing affects Eustachian tubes and causes a pressure change in the ears.

Have you ever tried keeping your nose and mouth closed and pushing air into your mouth? This opens he Eustachian tubes and you can definitely feel it. This is a trick I was taught by a nurse because I have ear pressure problems during flights. She told me to do this to release pressure in my ears while flying when I felt it building up.

So it's not surprising that swallowing would cause ear pain, especially when there is a problem in the ear or inner ear.

By literally45 — On Oct 13, 2013

I had no idea that a problem in my ears can be triggered by a throat action. When I started getting ear pain when swallowing, I assumed that I had both an ear and throat infection. But when I saw my doctor, he said that my throat is absolutely fine and that I just have an ear infection. He gave me antibiotics and when the infection cleared up, this symptom went away too. It's so interesting how our different organs are connected.

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