So You Have an Ear Infection—Is That Why Your Jaw’s Hurting, Too?

Photo: Getty Images/Daniel de la Hoz
When you think of ear infections, you may think of childhood. Lots of kids come down with ear infections after swapping germs at school or even getting pool water stuck in their ears. But unfortunately, adults can get ear infections, too, and they may be just as painful as they were back then. Add in other symptoms like jaw pain, and it's twice the trouble.

If you're unlucky enough to have an ear infection and jaw pain at the same time, you might wonder what's up—is it just a coincidence, or are the two things related?

Here, Philip Chen, MD, FARS, a professor of otolaryngology and rhinology at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, answers this question, including what kinds of conditions cause ear and jaw pain at the same time, and how you can relieve both while you heal from infection.

Experts In This Article

Can an ear infection cause jaw pain?

Sadly, yes (as if an earache wasn't sucky enough). There are two types of ear infections, according to Dr. Chen:

  • Middle ear infections, which happen behind the ear drum
  • External ear infections, also known as swimmer’s ear, which affect the ear canal—the tube between the outer ear and ear drum

Both kinds can cause jaw pain, and it's largely due to anatomy. “The jaw joint sits right in front of the ear and ear canal,” says Dr. Chen. So inflammation in the ear area will affect its neighbor, i.e., the jaw.

Still, if you have ear and jaw pain, you might not put two and two together. So how can you tell if your ear infection is causing your throbbing jaw? On top of pain, ear infections have some other telltale signs, says Dr. Chen, including:

  • Your ear is red, swollen, or itchy
  • There’s thick golden/green drainage from the ear canal
  • You have hearing loss
  • You feel pressure and fullness inside your ear
  • Your throat is swollen and sore

If you have all or a few of the above, an ear infection is likely to blame. But if in doubt, see your doctor. They can take a look to see if you have fluid behind your ear drum or an infection in the ear canal.

Other causes of jaw and ear pain

An ear infection isn’t the only possible reason for a double dose of ear and jaw pain. The following conditions can also cause pain in these areas at the same time, per Dr. Chen:

  • Temporomandibular disorders (TMD): You have two temporomandibular joints (TMJs)—one joint on either side of your face in front of your ears—which connect your lower jawbone to your skull. If they get irritated or inflamed (from things like tooth grinding or arthritis), they can make your jaw and ears super sore. This is the most common cause of ear and jaw pain.
  • Parotiditis: This happens when your parotid salivary gland—that sits in the cheek in front of the jawbone and ear—gets inflamed from irritation or infection. You can have facial swelling and redness of the cheek along with jaw/ear pain. Dehydration and certain medications (which dry out saliva) can worsen this condition.
  • Problems in other parts of the head and neck: The ear is affected by many sensory nerves, which are widespread throughout your face. So if you have an issue in any part of your head and neck (like a tumor, for example), you can get ear and jaw pain. This is called referred pain. Trigeminal neuralgia is another example. It’s a type of nerve pain that affects your face, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  • Dental problems or infections. This is another instance of referred pain. Our teeth are close to our ears, so aching in one area can radiate to the other.
  • Sinus problems. Swelling or a buildup of pressure in your sinuses can lead to pain in your jaw and face. Typically, sinus issues also cause nasal symptoms like stuffy/runny nose, headache, and loss of smell.

Home remedies for jaw pain caused by an ear infection

Depending on the type of ear infection you have (which your doctor can determine), you can either use home remedies or prescription medication to heal.

Usually, a healthy person doesn’t need antibiotics to clear a middle ear infection, says Dr. Chen. While your body heals on its own, you can try the following things at home to help manage the tenderness in your jaw:

  • Apply a warm compress to your jaw
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine like ibuprofen
  • Stick to soft foods and steer clear of hard foods (like raw apples or carrots) to give your jaw a rest
  • Avoid gum chewing, which can tire the jaw
  • Wear a dental guard at night (to prevent tooth grinding or jaw clenching when you sleep)
  • Gently massage the jaw to ease muscle tension (you can try things like acupressure massage or sinus massage)

As for an external ear infection, you can still use the same comfort measures for pain, but you'll also need to be treated with prescription drops (or oral antibiotics depending on the severity of the infection), says Dr. Chen.

And don’t think about trying any DIY ear cleansing or rinses, which could just make the issue worse, he adds. Putting anything inside your infected ear (like cotton swabs or your fingers) can potentially damage the sensitive skin in your ear canal.

When to see a doctor

In some cases, ear infections and jaw pain can get better on their own—with time and home remedies. But you might need an office visit if you have the following symptoms, per Penn Medicine:

  • You have a high fever or severe pain that worsens or doesn’t improve within 24 to 48 hours
  • You have new symptoms such as dizziness, headache, swelling around the ear, or weakness in the face muscles
  • You have severe pain that suddenly stops (this may be a sign of a ruptured eardrum)


Can an ear infection spread to your jaw?

“It's pretty uncommon, but it's possible,” says Dr. Chen. When an outer ear infection spreads to the surrounding tissues and bone, it’s called malignant otitis externa. Though rare, it’s a serious condition that can damage or destroy your bones, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Signs of malignant otitis externa to look out for include the following, per the NLM:

  • Ongoing drainage from the ear that is yellow or green and smells bad
  • Ear pain deep inside the ear that worsens when you move your head
  • Hearing loss
  • Itching of the ear or ear canal
  • Fever
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Weakness in the muscles of the face

If you have any of the above symptoms, see your doctor ASAP. Left untreated, malignant otitis externa can even affect your cranial nerves, brain, and other parts of your body, per the NLM.

How do I know if I have an ear infection or TMJ?

Often, people with TMJ issues are misdiagnosed with an ear infection, says Dr. Chen. With the overlap of symptoms (including ear and jaw pain and a feeling of fullness in the ear area), it can be hard to distinguish between the two. But there are subtle differences. For one, TMD (or disorders of the TMJ) don’t involve an infection, so you won’t get the typical signs like fever or drainage from the ear, he says. And with TMD, hearing loss would be less likely, while pain with yawning or chewing might be more prominent.

Even so, differentiating between an infection and TMD isn’t so cut and dry. For example, like TMD, middle ear infections don’t cause drainage the way outer ear infections do, says Dr. Chen. So telling the difference in this case might not be as clear.

At the end of the day, it’s best to leave the diagnosing to a medical professional. If the issue doesn't resolve on its own after a week or so, see your doctor. They can take a history of your symptoms and look inside your ear. If there’s no evidence of infection, you’re liking dealing with TMJ problems.

What can be mistaken for ear infection?

Whenever an earache strikes, our first assumption is an ear infection. Even though ear infections are common in kids, they’re less likely to happen as you get older. In fact, ear pain often has nothing to do with an infection and is usually related to another problem entirely. Here are some of the most common causes of ear pain that might be mistaken for an infection, according to Penn Medicine:

  • Arthritis of the jaw
  • Ear injury from pressure changes (from high altitudes and other causes)
  • Object stuck in the ear or buildup of ear wax
  • Hole in the eardrum
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD)
  • Tooth infection

What are the signs of mastoiditis?

Mastoiditis is a bacterial infection in your mastoid—the large bone behind your ear. It usually happens when a middle ear infection goes untreated (but it can also be caused by cholesteatoma, an abnormal skin growth in your middle ear and temporal bone behind your eardrum), according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Like an ear infection, mastoiditis can be painful. It may really hurt when you touch the area behind your ear. Other signs of mastoiditis include, per the Cleveland Clinic:

  • The skin covering your mastoid may look red and swollen
  • You may notice your ear looks as if it’s being pushed down and to the side
  • You may have a fever
  • You may notice pus or a thick fluid flowing from your ear
  • You may have hearing loss that gets worse over time

Thanks to antibiotics and vaccinations, mastoiditis is now “relatively rare,” per the Cleveland Clinic. That said, if you do have any of the above symptoms, see your doctor if you have any of the above symptoms. You’ll need antibiotics and steroids to treat the infection. In severe cases, you might even have surgery to remove the infected bone.

—reviewed by Jennifer Gilbert, MD, MPH 

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