Sore throat and ear pain sometimes go hand in hand. How does that happen? And what about when you have a sore throat on one side but not the other. You may wonder how could that be?
Well like most things in life, the connections between two items can often surprise us. A sore throat and ear pain can be caused by several conditions. These conditions obviously affect both. Some of them are not concerning and will pass in a few days. But other causes may warrant follow-up with a healthcare provider for treatment.
In this article, we will discuss the most common causes of sore throat and ear pain. We’ll explain why you might have a sore throat on one side but not the other, the hidden causes that may surprise you, and we’ll give the top 5 home remedies for a sore throat.
Symptoms of sore throat and ear pain
If you have a sore throat and ear pain, you unfortunately know the symptoms very well. The common symptoms that most people complain of are:
- Raw soreness in the back of your throat
- A dry or scratchy feeling in your throat sometimes extending upward to the nose
- Pain when swallowing or talking
- Swelling in the area of the wisdom teeth or swelling in the throat
- Swollen glands in your neck or jaw
- Muffled hearing
- The feeling of fullness in the ear
- Fluid drainage from ear
- Ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus
- Muscle fatigue around the jaw
What causes sore throat and ear pain
The causes of sore throat and ear pain when combined are vast. There’s actually quite a lengthy list. But that’s not a very good explanation to get quick information.
The best way to look at the cause is to simplify. Most people’s sore throat and ear pain fall into five simple categories. We will talk about them all in detail below.
The importance to understand is that the nerves that provide sensation are closely linked. Therefore, in some cases, pain in one area can refer to the other. And without further ado, here we go. The top five causes of sore throat and ear pain.
Infection can be related to bacteria or a virus. Some of the common conditions associated with sore throat and ear pain are:
- Strep throat—One of the most common sore throat infections. It is contagious infection that comes on very quickly. You may also notice tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth and have a fever.
- Tonsillitis—The tonsils in the throat are a first line of defense for our body in fighting germs entering the body. However, sometimes they are overwhelmed by a bacteria or virus, and they become infected. Tonsillitis is more common in children but can happen at any age. Common signs are pain when swallowing, swollen lymph nodes, fever, a sore throat on one side or both.
- Mononucleosis— Often referred to as mono, this is a condition disease caused by a virus. It is most common in the teenage years. Mononucleosis commonly creates symptoms of fatigue, muscle aches, and ear fullness.
Allergies, oh allergies. They’re one of those things in life that you just have to ask…why? What’s the point. But either way, allergies are a part of human life, and yes, they can cause sore throat and ear pain.
Allergens, such as pollen and dust, can trigger an allergic reaction that causes inflammation of the mucus membranes. Those membranes are in both the ear, nose, and throat. The inflammation can also create pressure in the ear due to mucus which causes ear pain.
You have to think of the head and neck like a bustling apartment building. There’s a lot of residents.
The mouth is adjacent to both the throat and the ears, and the areas communicate sensation by the same nerve pathways. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that conditions of the mouth can cause a sore throat and ear pain. There are two common causes of a sore throat and ear pain that are linked to oral health. Here we go…
Wisdom teeth may cause sore throat and ear pain
The most common reason for a sore throat and ear pain from dental origins is wisdom teeth. If you think about it, the wisdom teeth are way in the back of the mouth, just below the ear and just in front of the throat. They occupy a small space.
If an infection of the wisdom teeth arises, it doesn’t take much for the pressure in the small space of the wisdom teeth to send pain to neighboring areas like the throat or the ear.
It is also notable that it is common to develop a sore throat on one side when it is caused by a dental infection such as a wisdom tooth.
The hinges of the jaw (TMJs) are a pretty complex mechanism. They are connected on both sides of the head, just in front of the ears. The TMJs need to operate in a pretty consistent path while we are chewing, talking, laughing, etc throughout the day.
If there is an imbalance in the harmony of the TMJ, it can create muscle tension on the sides of the jaw. Because the muscles connect to area near the ears and in parts of the back of the mouth near the throat, TMJ disorder is a cause of sore throat and ear pain.
The key to look at is other symptoms that support a TMJ disorder diagnosis. Symptoms like headache, fatigue when chewing, jaw popping, facial pain, clenching or grinding your teeth, trismus, and soreness on the sides of the jaw are all symptoms in addition to ear pain that are associated with TMJ disorder.
Just like conditions of the mouth can refer to the throat or ear, nasal conditions can result in a sore throat and ear pain.
Sinusitis is a condition that causes the nose to be inflamed with mucus. The inflammation can move down toward the throat, and mucus can block drainage from the ear which creases ear pain.
The throat and ear passages are lined with sensitive and highly innervated tissue. This makes the throat and ear prone to irritation.
Lets use a visual example. Think of it this way, when you cut up onions for cooking or you stand in front of a campfire, what happens to your eyes? They water with irritation.
Irritation happens to the throat or ears much the same… but its less obvious because it’s harder to visualize. Yet irritation does still happen.
If you have a sore throat and ear pain, do a quick audit of your past week to see if you may have been exposed to irritants. There are common irritants that people encounter that cause a sore throat and ears which include:
Heat, arid climates, or excessive dehydration
Burns from hot or spicy food such as soup
Sore Throat on One Side
It’s odd to think of the throat as two separate areas, but it is actually common to develop a sore throat on one side—and not the other.
How on earth does that happen?
Well, there are a few ways and usually it’s due to a problem that is only on one side. Some of the common causes of a sore throat on one side are a single infected wisdom tooth, a unilateral infection of the tonsils, an irritation or a burn while eating that occurs on one side of the throat, and even just coincidence that one side of the airway is more irritated due to our breathing pattern such as if we sleep in an awkward position.
Top 5 Home Remedies for a Sore Throat
Gargle with warm salt water
Warm salt water is a simple natural technique to help soothe a mild or moderately sore throat. The salt helps to flush out mucus that causes painful inflammation in the back of the mouth and upper throat.
Try a natural lozenge
Throat lozenges can help to soothe a sore throat. Many of them contain menthol, honey, or lemon which act as mild analgesics for the throat. From an oral health perspective, just be careful to avoid lozenges with sugar as they can be a hidden source to increase the risk of tooth decay.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
When any tissue of the body is dry, guess what? It gets sore. Just like chapped lips string, and a sunburn burns, a dry throat is the same way. By staying hydrated with water and fluids, your body is able to better internally lubricate the throat which helps prevent irritation.
Try a humidifier
Sometimes the ambient air can contribute to a dry throat which increases soreness. Try a humidifier to help moisten ambient air. The moist air helps to soothe any inflammation of the throat. For an added benefit you can also try putting a menthol eucalyptus ointment in the vaporizer to add additional therapeutic benefit.
Keep your head elevated
When we lay back, blood pressure flows more strongly to the head. The increased blood flow can increase congestion and inflammation of the head and neck. To counteract that, prop an extra pillow or two under your head, or sleep in a recliner. The extra height will help you breathe easier and reduce inflammation to the throat.
Sore Throat and Ear Pain – When to see a doctor
Most sore throats are caused by common and benign sources that resolve on their own in about a week. But in rare cases, it might be a sign of something more serious or a chronic condition. Seek medical treatment if your symptoms persist for more than a few days or if you have any of the following symptoms:
- high fever
- difficulty breathing
- inability to swallow food or liquids
- severe, unbearable pain
- abnormal, high-pitched breathing sounds
- fast heart rate
- signs of an allergic reaction
- persistent headache, facial pain, or muscle soreness
If you have throat pain on one side, a sore throat, or ear pain that doesn’t go away after a few days, your doctor will evaluate it to determine the cause. The physician may prescribe you antibiotic, suggest OTC medications, or refer you to another specialist such as an ENT, an allergy specialist, a dentist, or a TMJ specialist.