Although ear infections are more common in children, they also affect adults. The term ear infection usually refers to a middle ear infection, or otitis media, which is caused by a bacterial or viral infection behind the eardrum. However, infections can also occur in the inner or external ear. The course of treatment for these infections depends on your health history, age, symptoms and severity, and treatment options include watchful waiting, antibiotic therapy, ear drops and pain relievers. However, if your doctor deems your infection doesn't require antibiotics, home treatments can help manage your pain as the infection resolves on its own.
Heat or Cold
To help reduce ear pain, soak a washcloth in warm water, squeeze out excess moisture, and apply to the affected ear. If this doesn't help, a cool washcloth can be tried. Either type of compress should be administered for 10 to 20 minutes, based on your comfort level. Be cautious to avoid burns from the compress being too hot or cold. If you have severe pain, or if your pain lasts more than a day, be sure to see your doctor to evaluate your ear and determine if you need additional treatment.
Oral pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help manage the pain associated with ear infections. In fact, since antibiotics aren't always used to treat ear infections, pain relievers are the primary treatment, according to clinical practice guidelines published in the October 2013 issue of "American Family Physician." While the pain medicine may improve the symptoms, it will not cure or fight off the infection. If you are under a doctor's care for any medical conditions, or if you take prescription medications, be sure to ask your doctor which type of pain reliever is best for you.
Prescription ear drops may be recommended to provide topical antibiotics or pain relief, however home treatment with ear drops -- such as homeopathic drops or olive oil -- is a common practice. There is little published research on home therapies for otitis media in adults, however pediatric clinical practice guidelines published in the March 2013 issue of "Pediatrics" outline that home remedies, such as oil or naturopathic drops placed in the outer ear, may have limited effectiveness in managing ear pain. However these drops are not known to help fight the infection. Before placing any drops in an ear with a suspected infection, be sure your doctor has evaluated the ear and approves the use of drops. No drops should be placed into the ear when it is oozing pus or blood, which is could signal a ruptured eardrum.
If you have a mild earache, waiting 1 to 2 days before seeing a doctor may be reasonable, as a mild viral infection may clear on its own. But if you have severe pain, a fever, fluid draining from your ear, trouble hearing or ear pain that does not get better after a 1 or 2 days, call your doctor. Delaying necessary treatment may cause hearing loss, perforated eardrum or a more severe infection. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and provide guidance on pain management strategies, and may also recommend additional over-the-counter treatments such as decongestants or antihistamines, if warranted.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD