Ear infections are no fun for anyone. If you or your child gets one, you just want the symptoms to be gone as soon as possible.
The best treatments vary depending on your type of ear infection – it can be in the inner, middle or outer ear. Ear infections can have different causes, too, and can be brought about by bacteria or by viruses.
So, what’s the best way to quickly clear up an ear infection? Do you need to see the doctor, or can you treat an ear infection at home? Read on for the answers.
What are at-home treatments for ear infection symptoms?
Most ear infections clear up without medical care or special medicines. So if you or your child gets an ear infection, the first step is usually to treat ear infection symptoms at home. Here are options to try:
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain and fever reliever
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) is often enough to reduce the pain and fever that can come with ear infections. Of course, all medicines aren’t safe for all ages, so make sure you give your child the correct amount for their age.
Kids over 3 months old can take acetaminophen – but if your baby has a fever, it’s a good idea to call the nurseline (612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859) for guidance on the right dose. Contact your doctor right away or go to urgent care if your little one is less than 3 months old and has a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Soak a washcloth in warm water, wring out the excess water and then hold it against the infected ear for up to 20 minutes. If it helps with the pain, reapply the compress throughout the day.
Sleeping and resting strengthens the immune system and helps your body fight off infections and other sickness. But it’s best not to sleep on your infected ear – and not just because it’s uncomfortable.
If you’re an adult with a middle ear infection, elevating the affected ear makes it easier for the infection to drain out. So, sleep on your other side or tuck a few extra pillows under your head if sleeping on your back.
If you have an outer ear infection, keep blankets and hair away from your ear. The airflow on your ear can help it stay dry, allowing it to heal faster.
Treatment for other illness and conditions
Decongestants, antihistamines and cold medicines won’t cure an ear infection, but it’s possible that they could help with your symptoms. If you treat allergy symptoms and get rid of the sniffles from a cold or flu, you may be able to reduce the swelling that’s blocking things up.
Saltwater is known as an effective way to reduce inflammation. And saltwater could help an ear infection as well – just don’t put the salt water directly in your ear. Instead, add one teaspoon salt to one cup of warm water and gargle it for a couple minutes. If your ear infection is related to a swollen throat, this can help reduce your symptoms.
If you or your child has an outer ear infection, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, using fluid-drying eardrops might help. You can buy OTC eardrops for swimmer’s ear at retail stores and online.
Using fluid-drying eardrops is not appropriate for people who have ear tubes. They also shouldn’t be used if there’s discharge coming from your ear or if your eardrum is ruptured. So before using eardrops for you or your child’s ear infection, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure they’re safe to use.
There’s a chance that putting hydrogen peroxide in your ears could help with an ear infection. To try it, place a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in your affected ear, let it sit for a few minutes, then tilt your head over a sink to let the fluid drain out before rinsing off your ear. But it’s important not to use too much hydrogen peroxide or repeat the procedure too frequently, as it can cause irritation, pain and inflammation.
Avoid using Q-tips for ear infection cleaning
If your ears are feeling plugged up, you may think about using a Q-tip to clean them out. Is this a good idea? In most cases, no.
You should never put a Q-tip in your ear canal – and this is especially true if there’s an infection inside the ear. While it seems like it might be good way to clean things out, using a Q-tip in your ear can actually push infected fluid farther into your ear, making your infection worse.
It’s okay to use a Q-tip to carefully clean the outer ear, the part that you can see. But chances are it won’t help much with your ear infection symptoms.
When should I talk to a doctor about an ear infection?
If the ear infection symptoms don’t improve within a few days, make a primary care appointment. Other signs that it’s time to see a doctor include:
- Ear pain that lasts more than two days
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Changes or loss of hearing
- Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Frequent or recurrent ear infections
Should I use antibiotics for an ear infection?
Antibiotics are a medicine prescribed by your doctor. If you’re dealing with an ear infection caused by bacteria, you’ll likely need antibiotics. They are the best way of quickly getting rid of a bacterial infection and preventing it from spreading to other parts of the body.
The catch is that antibiotics don’t work against viruses – if you use antibiotics on a viral ear infection, it can actually make the infection worse. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to a condition called antibiotic resistance, which means that the medicine becomes less effective at fighting off bacteria.
That’s why doctors are careful about using antibiotics wisely and may not immediately prescribe them for ear infections.
When your doctor may prescribe antibiotics
While every situation is unique, there are several factors that doctors consider when recommending antibiotics:
- What they see– If the infection is in the outer ear, it may be clear it’s caused by bacteria. In this case your doctor may recommend antibiotic eardrops to help clean out the ear infection. If your doctor can’t see the ear infection because it’s on the inside of the ear, they may not prescribe antibiotics right away.
- How long it’s been– Viral infections typically go away on their own in 1-2 weeks. If the ear infection has been around for less than a week, your doctor may recommend waiting to see if the ear infection goes away on its own, a sign that it’s viral. If it’s been more than a week, your doctor may recommend starting antibiotics.
- Your child’s age– The doctor may be more likely to prescribe antibiotics for children under 2 years old, especially if they have infections in both ears, have pain that’s moderate to severe, or have a fever.
- Symptoms– If you or your child have certain symptoms, such as an extremely high fever or severe dehydration, your doctor may recommend starting antibiotics sooner.
- Medical conditions– Your doctor may recommend starting antibiotics right away if there are certain medical conditions, such as cleft palate or repeat infections, that could lead to problems with an ear infection. In most cases, antibiotics will also be recommended when someone with a cochlear implant gets an ear infection.
What if my ear infection doesn’t go away after antibiotics?
If you or your child finish your course of antibiotics, but it seems like the ear infection hasn’t gone away, make an appointment with your doctor. They’ll help figure out what’s going on and what to do next. There’s a chance that your doctor may prescribe a different type of antibiotic to see if it works better.
It’s also possible that the infection is gone but the symptoms aren’t. This can happen if there’s still fluid trapped in the ear, causing a plugged-up feeling, pain or hearing loss. Most of the time the fluid in ears drains within a couple of weeks, but sometimes it sticks around longer.
What happens if an ear infection is left untreated?
Fluid buildup in the ear can be damaging – even if there’s no infection – and may lead to a ruptured eardrum and hearing loss. So, it’s important to see the doctor if symptoms remain after finishing the antibiotics. They’ll likely want to take a look in your ear and learn more about your symptoms.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend you see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. The ENT doctor may recommend surgery to place small metal or plastic tubes in the ear canal to make it easier for the fluid to drain out. Your doctor may also recommend ear tube surgery for your child if they have recurrent ear infections.
How can I prevent future ear infections?
Ear infections generally come after another illness caused by viruses or bacteria. Anything you can do to keep from getting sick or boost your immune system, should also help reduce your chance of ear infections. Here are ways to keep yourself and your family healthy:
- Wash hands frequently. This helps to stop the spread of germs that make you sick.
- Get vaccinated. Make sure both you and your child get a flu shot and other recommended vaccinations by age. Vaccinations are one of the most effective ways of preventing viral and bacterial infections, which can turn into ear infections.
- Stay away from cigarette smoke. Secondhand smoke makes it more likely that you, or your child, will get an ear infection. So, don’t smoke around your child. Better yet, talk to your doctor about quitting – giving up smoking is one of the best things you can do for your own health and the health of your family.
- When possible, limit the number of kids your child is around. If your child is around fewer kids, they’ll be around less germs that can get them sick.
- Breastfeed your baby. Breast milk contains antibodies that boost baby’s immune system, reducing the risk of ear infections. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least 12 months and that, for the first six months, baby eats nothing else.
- Hold your baby when they’re eating. If baby is bottle feeding, hold them in one arm and the bottle in the other hand. If baby eats lying down or falls asleep sucking on a bottle, fluids can collect in their ear, increasing the chance of ear infections.
- Limit pacifier use. Pacifiers are recommended to help your baby sleep safely and can reduce the chance of sudden infant death syndrome. However, the AAP recommends stopping use of the pacifier at around 6 months – babies who continue using pacifiers after 12 months are more likely to have ear infections.
- Talk to your doctor. If you or your child have frequent ear infections – three in 6 months or four within a year – ask your doctor if ear tubes might be a good option.