If you have some water in your ears after swimming or have an ear full of wax, you may have reached for ear drops. They have many uses, including treating ear infections, such as swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), excessive ear wax (AKA cerumen) and ear pain. And you can get them over the counter (OTC) or by prescription.
But before you go dripping drops in your ear, there’s a few things you should know. We spoke with Heather Coffman, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, to share important information regarding different types of drops and tips for how best to use them.
Is it safe to use ear drops?
Whether for ear wax, ear pain, tinnitus or swimmer’s ear, ear drops are generally safe, but take note.
“Ear drops are safe as long as your eardrum is intact,” Dr. Coffman said. When there is a perforation in the eardrum, drops can get into the middle ear. In this case, drops with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide can be painful. Some types of prescribed antibiotic drops, such as gentamicin, neomycin or Cortisporin, can damage the ear.
“It’s best if you ask your health care provider if the medicine is safe if you have a perforation,” Dr. Coffman said. “Additionally, if the drops are causing significant pain, seek medical care from your primary care provider or an ear, nose and throat specialist.”
Safe treatment options
For ear wax
Ear wax isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it protects the ear canal. However, for some, it can be a nuisance and excess wax can lead to hearing loss, discomfort and rarely infections. To remove ear wax build-up, Dr. Coffman recommends the following methods:
- Hydrogen peroxide-based products like Debrox and Murine, which also contain glycerin.
- Mineral oil to help soften hard wax and help with itchy ears
- Wax irritation kits, but use these with caution, Dr. Coffman said.
- “They can cause eardrum perforations and may lead to infection if water gets trapped behind the wax,” she said. “I never recommend water irrigation for diabetic patients due to the risk for severe infection.”
- Removal by an ear, nose and throat specialist.
You’ve likely heard the saying, “Don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow,” and it’s for good reason. Dig around with things that don’t belong in there, and you’ll put yourself at risk. Dr. Coffman recommends steering clear of cotton swabs, paper clips, bobby pins and using ear candling to remove unwanted ear wax.
For ear pain
Ear pain might be from an ear infection, an ear injury or poorly fit hearing aids. Typically, ear wax does not cause ear pain. However, frequently ear pain is referred pain from another location such as the throat or the jaw joint. Drops used to numb the ear canal are not recommended. “Drops for ear pain often contain benzocaine, and typically are not effective and have not been FDA-approved,” Dr. Coffman said.
For ear infections
To prevent infection, you can use swimmer’s ear drops containing rubbing alcohol to help dry out the ear canal or a combination of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar (mixed half and half). Use caution, however, because these can be painful in a red and swollen ear.
To relieve bacterial ear infections and decrease ear pain, your provider may prescribe antibiotic ear drops.
Tips for using ear drops correctly
The following instructions can help you put ear drops in your ears. If you’re having trouble putting them into your own ears, ask someone to help you.
- Warm the ear drop bottle in your hands. Any ear drops that are cold (or too warm) can cause dizziness when placed in the ear canal.
- Lie down with your affected ear facing up.
- Gently pull your ear back to help straighten the ear canal.
- Hold the dropper tip over the ear and squeeze out recommended drops (typically 4 to 5 drops of antibiotics per dose).
- Massage the tragus (the piece of skin that sticks out just in front of the ear canal like an open trapdoor). This will close and open the ear canal and force the drops down the ear canal.
- Continue to lie on your side for a couple minutes to allow the drops to reach the eardrum at the base of the ear canal.
- Sit up and let any excess drops drain out.
- Repeat in the other ear, if needed.
When should I contact my health care provider?
If your ear is hurting, ear drops are causing you significant pain, you have trouble hearing or are experiencing other symptoms, such as dizziness or ringing, contact your health care provider or an ear, nose and throat specialist. To find a Banner Health specialist, visit bannerhealth.com.
Got more questions? We’re all ears.
Here are some additional topics you may be interested in:
- Ins and Outs of Ear Infections
- Does My Child Need Ear Tubes?
- Are Ear Buds Putting Your Hearing at Risk?
- The Best Ways to Communicate with Someone Who Doesn't Hear Well