3 Home Remedies for an Ear Infection

And when to chuck them and see a doctor instead
Mom checking on son's earache at home

Your kiddo is tugging on her ear again. Uh-oh. Or maybe ear pain is keeping you up at night. No matter the age, ear infections are no fun. ENT-otolaryngologist Anh Nguyen-Huynh, MD, explains all about ear infections, and the earache remedies you can try at home.

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What type of ear infection is it?

There are two common types of ear infections:

  • Otitis media: This ear infection affects the middle ear (right behind the eardrum). Middle ear infections are common in kids and tend to cause trouble hearing, fevers, and pain without much outward signs such as ear drainage or swelling.
  • Otitis externa: This infection affects the ear canal, and is commonly known as swimmer’s ear because water exposure is a risk factor for it. Swimmer’s ear is painful, too, and tends to have more visible signs such as a swollen ear canal or pus drainage.

“There are several home remedies for earaches,” says Dr. Nguyen-Huynh. “Try these for the first two or three days if symptoms are mild.”

Earache remedies you can try

1. Hot or cold compress

The skinny: Grab an ice or heat pack and put it on the affected ear to help with the pain.

Doctor’s advice: The temperature you use is up to you. Wrap it in a towel to make sure it’s not too cold or too hot. You don’t want to cause any burns.

2. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers

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The skinny: Pain relievers work as advertised, helping take the edge off the pain.

Doctor’s advice: Both adults and kids can rest easier when they take acetaminophen or ibuprofen at the right dosage. These medications reduce pain and fever, making you feel more comfortable.

3. Sleep position

The skinny: How you sleep can affect ear pain. Rest with your head on two or more pillows, so the affected ear is higher than the rest of your body. Or if the left ear has an infection, sleep on your right side. Less pressure = less ear pain.

Doctor’s advice: It could be effective, though a few inches may not make a big difference in pressure measurement. But if it makes you feel better, go for it.

Two home remedies for earaches that are best left on the shelf

1. OTC numbing drops

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Dr. Nguyen-Huynh recommends avoiding numbing drops. “The effect is very brief, and sometimes it does the opposite and stings the ear.”

2. Oils

Be it garlic, tea tree or olive — people swear by putting oil in the ear to help with ear infections. While garlic does have antibacterial properties, Dr. Nguyen-Huynh urges caution. If you’re using it for a middle ear infection, it won’t get to the source of the problem. And even if you do have a hole in your eardrum, there aren’t studies showing it’s safe to put garlic in there.

When to see a doctor about an earache

Dr. Nguyen-Huynh recommends seeing a doctor if:

  • Your symptoms remain after two or three days, even if you’ve tried over-the-counter or home remedies.
  • Your ear is very painful, or you have other symptoms that bother you.

Other common conditions, such as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ), can masquerade as earache infections. TMJ causes ear pain because the ear canal and the jaw joint share a nerve. “If you have ear pain along with trouble chewing, talking or yawning, then you should see a dentist or TMJ expert to be sure you’re treating the right condition,” notes Dr. Nguyen-Huynh.

The good news? Hot and cold compresses and OTC pain relievers can also help relieve TMJ pain until you sort things out.

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