If you or your child have an ear infection, the painful earache may seem unbearable. It’s natural to want to do something to take away the pain.
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Some people turn to essential oils to alleviate the ache, but are they safe for your ears? Jessica Ruff, MD, a wellness and preventive medicine physician, cautions against this, and shares what you need to know about this unconventional treatment for ear infections.
Can essential oils treat ear infections?
Essentials oils, which are compounds that give plants their fragrance, may be useful for aromatherapy and improving your mood. But scientific studies don’t support using them for ear infections. In fact, essential oils may worsen an ear problem or cause lasting damage. Consider these facts:
Essential oils aren’t antibiotics
Some essential oils may have bacteria-killing (antimicrobial) properties. But placing drops of essential oil into your ear won’t help a bacterial ear infection. “These infections tend to occur in your middle ear, the air-filled space between your eardrum and inner ear,” explains Dr. Ruff. “Your eardrum prevents the drops from reaching the site of the infection.”
If you or your child have an ear infection (otitis media) that doesn’t improve after two or three days, see a healthcare provider. They can figure out if you have a bacterial ear infection that needs antibiotics. This oral medication circulates throughout your body to kill the bacteria causing the ear infection.
Swallowing an essential oil won’t have the same antibiotic effect either. More importantly, essential oils — especially full-strength oils — can be poisonous and potentially deadly when ingested. That’s why you should keep all essential oils out of children’s reach.
Essential oils may permanently damage your ears
Because of their powerful concentrations, never use pure essential oils straight from the bottle. Instead, mix drops of the essential oil with another oil (called a carrier oil) to weaken or dilute it.
Even after you dilute an essential oil, it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to the mixture when it touches your skin. Some people develop painful blisters and rashes that need medical attention.
Drops of oil directly into your ears may cause even worse reactions. “The oil could burn the delicate tissue of your eardrum, causing irreversible damage,” warns Dr. Ruff. It also isn’t a good idea to stuff an oil-soaked cotton ball into your ear. The oil can still drip into your ear canal.
Using essential oil eardrops on a ruptured eardrum can be especially dangerous. “The oil can seep through the tear or opening in the eardrum, causing severe pain and pressure,” she adds.
At a minimum, essential oil eardrops can clog your ears, creating that uncomfortable, muffled, “I can’t hear you” sensation. Or worse, you may develop ototoxicity, a type of inner ear damage caused by treatments.
Ototoxicity can cause:
Young children with ototoxicity may have difficulty:
- Following conversations.
- Staying focused in class.
- Talking and listening.
Essential oils aren’t safe for some people
Essential oils aren’t food or medicine, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate them for safety or efficacy. “The bottle of essential oil might not contain what’s on the label,” cautions Dr. Ruff. “The oil may have impurities or have more or less of the concentrated amount listed on the label.”
Due to the lack of research on essential oil safety and risks, experts like Dr. Ruff also don’t recommend using essential oils in any manner on children younger than 6. Pregnant and breastfeeding people should avoid using essential oils, too. “There are simply too many unknowns about the health risks of essential oils,” she says.
Safer ways to treat ear infections
If you’re looking for safer, natural ways to ease an earache until the infection clears, Dr. Ruff recommends these home remedies for ear infections:
- Apply heat: Apply warm compresses or a heating pad to the outside of your aching ear. You can also alternate warm and cold compresses if that feels better.
- Elevate your head: Rest with the uninfected ear against an elevated pillow to take pressure off your head and the infected ear.
- Take pain relievers: Take over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease swelling and pain.