What Causes Ear and Throat Pain On One Side When Swallowing?

Man suffering from ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing.

Are you experiencing ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing? There are many possible causes of one-sided pain in the throat and ear, including viral infections, nerve problems, digestive issues and other infections. Some of these conditions may cause a sharp pain in the throat when swallowing on one side, while others also cause ear pain. Here are some of the possible conditions that can result in one-sided ear and throat pain when swallowing.

Tonsilitis
If the tonsils are inflamed from a bacterial or viral infection, it is called tonsilitis. This condition is more common in children, but anyone with tonsils can experience this infection at any age. Tonsilitis can cause pain in the throat and ear when swallowing due to swollen lymph nodes on one side of the neck and it may be accompanied by a fever.
Postnasal Drip, Allergies and Sinusitis
Postnasal drip is caused by excess mucus and salvia that can irritate the throat. Viral infections that impact the sinuses or allergies can contribute to postnasal drip and throat pain. The ears, throat and sinuses are all connected, which can result in ear and throat pain when swallowing, usually on one side. Most postnasal drip conditions can be controlled with over-the-counter medications, relieving allergies or nasal congestion.
Strep Throat or Mono
Mononucleosis (mono) or strep throat can cause sharp pain in the throat when swallowing and may also result in ear pain. These are both contagious diseases that result in an infection that can impact the throat and the ears.
Tooth Infection
An abscessed or infected tooth can cause pain in the ear and throat that may be worse when swallowing. The infection in the tooth can cause the lymph nodes to swell, putting pressure on the ear and throat. Most infected teeth will also result in a toothache along with the pain in the throat and ear.
Epiglottitis
The epiglottis is the flap at the back of the throat that prevents food or other substances from traveling down into the windpipe or airway into the lungs. Epiglottitis is an inflation of the epiglottis that can result in a sharp pain in the throat when swallowing on one side or in the back of the throat. This condition can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia
There are multiple nerves in the throat that can be irritated and cause pain. The glossopharyngeal nerve is one of these nerves that can be damaged or aggravated, resulting in ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing. This type of neuralgia can be managed with medication or treatment of the source of nerve irritation.
Acid or Laryngopharyngeal Reflux
Reflux conditions involves the backup of stomach digestive juices into the esophagus and throat. Gastrointestinal acid reflux disease, or GERD, or laryngopharyngeal reflux can result in irritation of the throat and larynx that can cause pain when swallowing. In some cases, ear pain may also be caused by reflux conditions.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ/TMD)
Temporomandibular joint disorders, or TMJ/TMD, occur in the jaw joint, resulting in pain that is usually on one side of the jaw. This can result in throat and ear pain that radiates from the jaw joint and may be worse when swallowing. TMJ can be aggravated by dental problems, jaw clenching or bruxism (teeth grinding). Medical treatment and lifestyle changes can manage pain and discomfort caused by TMD.
Oral and Throat Cancers
While more rare, sharp pain in the throat when swallowing on one side can be a symptom of oral or throat cancer. Oral cancer can be deadly if not detected and treated early, and often does not have any symptoms in the early stages. Pain when swallowing can indicate cancer and should be investigated by a doctor when there are no other obvious causes.

Woman at doctor appointment due to ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing.

When to See a Doctor for Ear or Throat Pain When Swallowing

Ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing can be caused by a wide variety of conditions, some common and others that are very serious. Many times, it is a temporary symptom of a cold, flu or other type of viral infection. However, when you have continuing throat or ear pain, you may need to see a doctor. If your ear and throat pain are accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you may want to see your primary physician or an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT):

  • Fever (above 100 degrees)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Problems breathing
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

Even without other symptoms, if you have ongoing ear and throat pain on one side when swallowing or sharp pain in the throat, consider visiting your doctor or an ENT specialist for treatment. Due to the wide variety of conditions that can cause these symptoms, you may need a medical diagnosis to find the right treatment option.