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Ear Infections: Remedies and Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 11, 2020

Ear infections, also known as acute otitis media, are very common, particularly among children. They can be very uncomfortable and painful, but there are steps you can take to help ease the symptoms.

Ear infections are caused by bacteria or a virus that causes swelling of the passages in the ear. When your nasal and ear passages get swollen, fluid gets trapped in the middle ear, which is normally filled with air. The fluid in the middle ear can then become infected, causing pain.

Usually, the signs and symptoms of an ear infection come on quickly. In children, symptoms of an ear infection may include:

  • Ear pain, which may be worse when lying down
  • Fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tugging at the ear
  • Fussiness and crying
  • Trouble hearing
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear
  • Loss of balance

In adults, common ear infection symptoms include ear pain, fluid draining from the ear, and trouble hearing. Usually, ear infections go away by themselves, but there are at-home remedies to relieve some of the symptoms. 

Remedies and Treatments for Ear Infections

Most home remedies for ear infections are focused on pain relief. It’s usually possible to manage ear infection pain at home while waiting for the infection to go away. It’s also important to monitor the infection closely.

Pain Relief

One popular method to relieve ear pain is putting a hot or cold compress, like a wet washcloth, on the ear. Make sure the compress is not too hot or too cold. You can try both temperatures to see if one helps more.

Pain reliever medicines like acetaminophen, naproxen, or ibuprofen can also help relieve ear pain. Follow the dosing directions on the label for yourself or your child.

Several over-the-counter ear drops are available as well. Most are homeopathic, meaning they are made from natural ingredients. Several studies have shown homeopathic medicines relieve pain and help ear infections heal more quickly.

Sleeping position can also affect your ear infection healing time. Sleeping while sitting up can help drain the fluid from your ear. This may help to relieve pressure and reduce pain.

Lastly, the natural substance xylitol might help prevent ear infections in children. Xylitol can be found in chewing gums or lozenges, and it’s naturally found in fruit and vegetable fibers. Many studies have shown success in preventing ear infections using xylitol.

Prevention

There are also several options you can take to avoid ear infections for yourself or your child. These include:

  • Avoiding common colds and flu. Wash your hands frequently, sneeze into your elbow, and make sure you and your child get your flu vaccine and other vaccines recommended by your doctor.
  • Avoiding second-hand smoke. 
  • Breastfeeding, or holding your baby upright when bottle feeding.

In addition, vitamin D and probiotics (live bacteria that offer health benefits) both increase immunity.

Taking a probiotic supplement or eating foods high in probiotics, like yogurt, may help prevent future ear infections. Taking a vitamin D supplement may also help. More research is needed on both probiotics and vitamin D supplements to confirm that they help prevent ear infections.

When to See a Doctor

If your child’s symptoms last for more than one day, or if ear pain is severe, you should talk to a doctor. Also call your doctor if you observe bloody fluid or pus draining from the ear. Lastly, call a doctor if your child who is less than six months old is showing symptoms of an ear infection. 

Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics that usually treat the infection quickly. 

Leaving a severe infection untreated can cause hearing problems or other complications. Mild hearing loss is possible while an infection is present, but if the infection doesn’t disappear or keeps coming back, permanent hearing loss is possible. Untreated infections can also lead to dangerous spreading of the infection to nearby body parts.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Family Physician: “Otitis media: diagnosis and treatment.”

The BMJ: “Xylitol chewing gum in prevention of acute otitis media: double blind randomised trial.”

Cleveland Clinic: “3 Home Remedies for an Ear Infection.”

International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology: “Complementary and alternative medicine for pediatric otitis media.”

Mayo Clinic: “Ear infection (middle ear).”

Medicine (Baltimore): “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatment Options for Otitis Media.” 

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