Managing the pain and discomfort of an ear infection can be a tiresome process. You’ll often have to deal with a constant flow of discharge from the infected ear, as well as a fair amount of pressure and a feeling of fullness in and around the ear.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of dealing with an ear infection, however, is trying to get uninterrupted, quality sleep. Having so much pain and pressure in an area close to the brain will often cause many people suffering from the condition to toss and turn all night long.
This guide will take an in-depth look at a number of key areas, including the effect an ear infection can have on sleep, the best positions for optimizing sleep when suffering with the condition, and some of the most effective remedies. There is even a special ear pillow that will help you finding the best sleep position.
Affect On Sleep
As is the case with the pain from most conditions, the discomfort of an ear infection always seems to get worse at night.
One explanation for this is the fact that cortisol, the primary stress hormone, naturally lowers at night. Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory hormone, so when this significantly drops, your normal pain thresholds are reduced as well.
There are also significantly fewer distractions at night to help keep your mind away from the feelings of discomfort. This absence of distracting stimuli can often skew your perception of pain as the mind has little else to focus its attention on.
In terms of the anatomy of the inner ear, a series of passages called the eustachian tubes connect the inner ear to the back of your throat.
These tubes are tasked with the responsibility of keeping the middle ear clean by draining it into the throat, as well as balancing the air pressure in the chamber by allowing a sufficient amount of air in.
The duties of the eustachian tubes are completed with ease during the day, helped by the fact that you’re upright and moving for the majority of it. Chewing and swallowing also help to contract the muscles around the tubes and let enough air in to balance the pressure.
At night, however, you’ll typically be lying down horizontally, completely motionless, and rarely chewing or swallowing. Taking all this into account, the eustachian tubes are highly ineffective at their job, potentially leaving you in a great deal of pain.
Best Sleeping Positions
While there is no surefire way to get rid of ear pain, there are some sleeping positions that can help to ease the discomfort. Firstly, it’s important to keep your head raised. Sleeping upright can allow the fluid in your ear to drain away easier, as well as relieving the pressure and pain in the middle ear.
There are a number of effective methods to elevate your upper body as you sleep. Some of the most popular include stacking multiple pillows under your head, placing a couple of wooden blocks under the headboard, or sleeping on a recliner.
It’s also worth noting that positioning a towel underneath your head as you sleep is a great way to catch any discharge and protect your bedding.
Lying on your back isn’t the best position for sleeping with an ear infection as it can further intensify the pressure on your ears. Instead, it’s much better to regularly switch positions during sleep to help ease some of the pressure.
As mentioned above, sleeping upright is an effective method, but for a more natural position, lying on your side will have an equally relaxing effect.
Furthermore, if your ear infection is occurring in just one of your ears, sleeping on the side of the healthy ear is useful for reducing the pressure in the affected area and increasing drainage.
One potential way to support easing the ear pain is to use a pillow specifically designed for the purpose. These pillows are usually soft but supportive, so they can be easily bent or moulded to fit the contours of your ear. They also tend to be made in a way that helps to promote air circulation, which then again can help to reduce inflammation. If you're looking for a way to ease your ear pain, consider using a specialised ear pillow.
One of the quickest and most popular ways to gain relief from an ear infection is to take some kind of pain medication. Most pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are competent enough to reduce the pain to a point where you should be able to sleep soundly.
However, for children under the age of two and people with underlying health conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure, it’s important to consult with your doctor or healthcare professional before taking over-the-counter pain medication.
Another effective remedy is sipping water before going to bed. Alternatively, you could also try chewing and swallowing exercises in the lead up to sleeping.
All three - sipping, chewing, and swallowing - can help trigger the muscles of the eustachian tubes to open and drain, reducing some of the pressure and pain in your ear.
Finally, applying heat to the affected area is a great way to numb the pain, ease inflammation, and break any congestion in the inner ear or eustachian tubes. There are many ways you can do this, like using a heating pad or a warm wash cloth. Make sure you are doing it cautiously and avoid any water getting into your inner ear.
In some cases it migt be best to use a cold rather than a warm compress, e.g. when suffering from an ear canal infection (otitis externa). Also here you want to avoid any cold water getting into the ear.
All these natural pain reliever will take around 10-15 minutes to fully soothe the affected area, and should provide you with enough respite to fall soundly asleep without any issues.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are children more likely to get an ear infection?
This is because eustachian tubes are often underdeveloped in children. They are shorter, wider, and more prone to clogging, increasing the likelihood of developing an ear infection or suffering some of the more severe symptoms.
Do ear infections resolve on their own?
The majority of ear infections will go away without treatment after a few days. It’s believed that as many as 80% of cases resolve themselves without any kind of medication.
Does drinking water help an ear infection?
Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated can significantly ease some of the painful symptoms of an ear infection. Proper hydration can indirectly help decongest your canals.