Have you ever had to deal with an ear infection? If yes, you can immediately relate when describing the excruciating pain and frustrating discomfort it often brings.
You feel a sharp, burning sensation around your ear; movement, and even staying still become significantly more painful. Worse yet, with many cases of ear infection, you also have to deal with the constant flow of discharge from the infected ear.
To the uninitiated, imagine having a constant ball of fire behind your ear, and you might be close.
However, the worst aspect of managing ear infections can often be trying to get some uninterrupted stretch of shuteye. Having so much disconcerting pain, this close to your brain can often leave many people with condition tossing and turning all night long.
What is the best way to handle this situation? How do you sleep and get adequate rest even with an ear infection?
Ear infections occur when the inner, middle, or outer ear gets inflamed. However, in general usage, the term “ear infection” often applied to an inflammation of the middle ear (otitis,) the air-filled space that sits immediately behind the eardrum. (outer ear infection is known colloquially as swimmer’s ear, while the medical term for an inner ear infection is labyrinthitis.)
The typical symptoms of the condition include pain, pressure, and a feeling of fullness in and around the ear. In many cases, an ear infection can resolve on their own without requiring the administration of antibiotics. Either way, the condition rarely lasts for more than a few days.
While ear infections can affect people of all ages, children, especially smaller kids, post the highest risk factor for developing the condition.
How Ear Infections Affect Sleep
If you ever had to deal with any form of prolonged pain, you’d realize that the discomfort always seems to get worse at night. Yes, the effect is real.
Pain can feel worse at night due to several factors. At night, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which also packs anti-inflammatory properties, naturally lowers significantly, reducing your normal pain thresholds. Plus, our experience of pain can change considerably come nighttime.
At night, there are significantly fewer distractions that can keep your mind off the feelings of discomfort. This absence of abundant daytime stimuli can skew your perception of pain as your mind has little else to focus on.
However, the negative impact that ear infections can have on sleep extends even beyond that. To understand how you have to follow the anatomy of the inner ear.
The inner ear connects to the back of the throat via a series of passages called the eustachian tubes. These tubes help to keep the middle ear clean by draining it into the throat, and also balances the air pressure in the chamber by allowing air in.
During the day, the eustachian tubes complete both tasks with ease. The fact that you are upright and in motion for most of the day allows the tubes to drain quickly.
On the other hand, chewing and swallowing helps contract the muscles around the tubes, expand the airway, and let air through the tubes and into the middle ear to balance its pressure.
At night, you are often lying down horizontally, completely passive, and rarely ever chewing or swallowing. All of these factors can make the eustachian tubes terrible at their job, potentially leaving you with an even more heightened sense of pain.
The anatomy of the middle ear and eustachian tubes partially explains why children are more prone to developing ear infections or experiencing worse symptoms. In children, the underdeveloped eustachian tubes are relatively shorter, wider, and significantly more susceptible to clogging.
How to Sleep with an Ear Infection
All it takes is one night of rough sleep due to an ear infection to put you in the mood to try anything. Based on our research, here are the best ways to get a good night’s rest, even while battling otitis:
Elevate Your Head
One of the first solutions you should try is simply to sleep with your head or upper body in a raised position.
Elevating your head is optimal for draining away any congestion in the inner ear through the eustachian tubes. Reducing congestion this way will often lead to an easing of symptoms, including pain, and will increase your chances of getting better sleep.
You can elevate your upper body during sleep by:
- Stacking multiple pillows underneath your head. However, going this route is far more likely to throw your spine out of alignment and leave you with neck pain in the morning
- Placing a stack of books or two wooden blocks under your bed’s headboard. This method gives your mattress a more natural incline that puts far less strain on your frame
- Using a wedge pillow between your mattress and the foundation to raise your upper body. This option is our preferred method and the one we recommend.
- Sleeping on a recliner or adjustable bed.
Consider placing a towel underneath your head to catch any discharge and protect your beddings.
Optimize Your Sleeping Position
Another excellent way to increase your chances of getting quality sleep is to choose a sleep position that helps to ease the strain on your ear.
Due to our anatomy, the best position for maximizing the decongestion of the ear canals is on your stomach. However, sleeping in this position does come with several drawbacks that can detract from your overall sleep quality.
Back sleeping can be quite tasking on your neck and back. For many people, sleeping in this position will often lead to spinal misalignment, body pain, discomfort, and poor sleep. This sleeping position is also a no-go for pregnant women.
Lying on your back too is no good, and it can further intensify pressure on the ears.
A more practical alternative is to choose to sleep on your side. Opt to sleep on the side of your healthy ear, as this can help elevate the infected ear further and increase drainage.
Use Pain Relievers
If your ear infection stops you from hitting the sack, one of the faster ways to gain some relief is to take some pain medication. Pain relievers like paracetamol, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen can help ease the pain. Painkillers are often competent enough at lowering the pain enough for you to sleep soundly afterward.
However, if you have any critical underlying conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease, you should consult with your healthcare practitioner before self-administering over-the-counter pain medication.
Sip, Chew, Swallow
Before going to bed, consider sipping some water or juice or chewing on a light snack. Chewing, drinking, and swallowing all help open up the Eustachian tubes and promote the draining of the ear, and by extension, the reduction of ear pain.
Other practical measures you can try to get the same effect include yawning repeated or chewing gum.
Hydrate. Drinking enough water can also help, as hydrating properly can indirectly help decongest your canals.
Heat is one of the most excellent natural pain relievers. Add some warmth to the infected ear, and you may gain enough respite to get back to sleeping like a baby again.
In addition to pain relief, heat can also help break any congestion in the inner ear or eustachian tubes
There several ways to go about applying heat.
- Using a warm compress—a warm towel pressed against the region to provide instant relief
- Pointing a hairdryer (set to the lowest setting, and placed at least 6 inches away) at the ear and holding the jetstream for about 5 minutes
- You can achieve the same effect with a bottle containing warm water or by warming up an oven-safe plate
Avoid going too hot with any of these options to avoid scalding your skin. The compress’s temperature should be warm but not so hot that you can’t hold onto it for a few seconds.
Try a Cold Compress
On the other hand, a cold compress can have a similar analgesic effect. Place a cold towel, or an ice pack wrapped in a towel on the infected ear for 5-15 minutes to help numb the pain and ease inflammation.
Try a Vasoconstrictor
Yes, nasal sprays and other vasoconstrictors mainly target nasal blockages. However, they can also have an indirect effect on auricular congestion.
For example, vasoconstrictors that contain phenylephrine can help shrink the region around the mouth of the eustachian tubes. This shrinkage gives the eustachian tubes room to expand further, consequently improving the drainage of the inner ear.
Popular Remedies You Should Avoid
Numbing Ear Drops
Numbing drops are another popular remedy for easing ear infections and helping you sleep better. However, you should pause before trying them out.
While ear drops can be an excellent treatment solution for many, in others, they can produce adverse effects. In addition to active ingredients like benzocaine, many of these over-the-counter drops also pack a series of herbal essences that could provoke an unfavorable response in some people.
Potential side effects include allergic reactions and a stinging feeling in-ear.
Before using numbing ear drops, you should consult with your healthcare administrator to ascertain the brand’s safety in your particular situation.
Essential Oils and Herbal Essences
Popular home remedies for ear infections and ear pain often includes several oils and herbal extracts. Some of the most common of these “cures” include garlic essence, mullein, lavender oil, and tea tree oil.
However, while many of these oils do pack antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, we advise that if you do use them, you do so with caution.
There are no extensive studies that investigate the effects of introducing these herbal essences into the ear canal. Furthermore, when you drop these substances into your ear, they can only get as far as your impermeable eardrum.
When to See a Doctor
You should seriously consider quitting all home remedies and consulting with your primary healthcare provider if an ear infection persists for more than three days. Your physician will conduct a proper diagnosis and administer antibiotics or other medications as appropriate.
You should also consult a doctor ASAP if the drainage from the infected ear contains pus or blood—this may indicate an eardrum perforation.
Ear infections left untreated can result in more severe problems such as permanent loss of hearing loss. Hence you must visit a qualified healthcare practitioner if symptoms persist.
Ear infections can lead to hearing loss both in adults and children.