Using Essential Oils for an Ear Infection

Essential oils extracted from plants are thought to have several health benefits. One benefit embraced by herbalists is the use of essential oils for ear infections (also known as acute otitis media). Their antimicrobial properties are said to be effective in killing bacteria that cause infection, inflammation, and pain in the ear.

But how safe and effective are they?

This article weighs the benefits and risks of using essential oils for ear infections. It also looks at the different oils that may be useful in treating ear infections and offers tips on how to choose and use essential oils safely.

Close-Up Of Essential Oils On Table

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How Do Essential Oils Work for Ear Infections?

Ear infection, or acute otitis media, is an infection in the middle ear. The middle ear is the empty space behind the eardrum that contains the hearing bones which transmit sound vibrations to the inner ear.

Essential oils are thought to be useful for treating ear infections because they contain different compounds that are antimicrobial. This means that they can kill microbes (microorganisms) like bacteria, fungi, and viruses when applied topically (to the skin).

Through the process of distillation, these compounds become highly concentrated, increasing their antimicrobial activity. Because essential oils are greasy, they cling to the skin rather than evaporating or being easily wiped away.

For ear infections, essential oils are introduced into the ear using a dropper or cotton ball. By neutralizing bacteria within the middle ear, symptoms such as pain, ear discharge, and swelling may be relieved.

Types of Essential Oils for Ear Infections

Not all essential oils will be useful for treating an ear infection. Some research suggests that three specific oils—tea tree oil, garlic oil, and basil oil—may help fight ear infections and improve symptoms.

Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is derived from the Australian tea tree. It is thought to have antibacterial properties. 

Although studies involving the use of tea tree oil for ear infections are scarce, older studies have found that tea tree oil contains high amounts of terpinen-4-ol, a chemical compound that is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiparasitic.

Recent research has found that terpinen-4-ol can be effective at fighting a type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, which causes strep throat and different skin infections.

Garlic Oil

Garlic oil has been used for centuries to help treat various ailments such as parasitic infections, digestive disorders cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illness.

Research has shown that garlic oil can help reduce the severity and symptoms of ear infections, even if it is used in low concentrations.

One study published in 2019 found that two specific garlic derivatives, allicin and s-allyl cysteine (SAC), were promising agents against microorganisms that cause infections in the middle ear and ear canal.

Basil Oil

Also referred to as sweet basil essential oil, basil oil has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. The plant contains 38 compounds; two of the most important for fighting infections are methyl eugenol and methyl chavicol.

One study published in 2015 reported that both were effective at killing a broad spectrum of bacteria. Although research in humans is scarce, one animal study found evidence of a benefit in treating ear infections in rats.

How to Use

When using essential oils for ear infections, you will want to dilute them first. You can do this by mixing the essential oil with a neutral carrier oil like almond or argan oil. This can reduce the risk of irritation that would likely occur if the oil were undiluted.

How to Dilute Essential Oils

When used for ear infections, the essential oil should be extremely diluted. The standard recipe calls for one drop of essential oil to one teaspoon (5 milliliters) of carrier oil.

Before applying the diluted oil to your ear, apply a small drop to the skin and wait an hour or so to see if you have an allergic reaction.

There are several ways to use essential oils to treat ear infections:

  • Dip a cotton ball in the diluted oil and gently insert it into your ear canal, leaving it there for an hour or so.
  • Dip a cotton swab into the diluted oil and rub the mixture onto the infected skin. This should only be done on the outside of the ear canal; never insert a cotton swab into your ear.
  • Use a dropper to place the diluted oil in your ear. You should do this sparingly since the oil can clog the ear.

Risks and Contraindications

Many people believe that because essential oils are "natural" and plant-based, they are safe for external use. This is not always the case.

Some essential oils may be well-tolerated in the ear. Others may be less tolerable and cause inflammation, irritation, and pain. This is especially true of undiluted essential oils which can cause stinging, redness, and even burns.

You should also avoid using essential oils if your eardrum is ruptured.

Essential oils should never be ingested, even in small amounts, since they can be extremely toxic and lead to poisoning. Symptoms of poisoning include: 

  • Gagging or choking
  • Drowsiness
  • Cough and wheezing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Seizures

People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use essential oils without first speaking with a healthcare provider. Due to the lack of safety research, essential oils should be avoided in babies and children.

How to Choose Essential Oils Safely

Essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To ensure purity and avoid potentially harmful knock-offs:

  • Only buy essential oils from reputable companies.
  • Only buy oils that come in tightly sealed dark glass bottles (usually amber but sometimes blue).
  • The label should state both the common and Latin name of the plant from which the oil is derived.
  • If in doubt, place a drop of oil on a piece of paper. There will be an oil stain, but if you find a colored ring around the oil stain, you have a tainted or impure product.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

If you have been using essential oils to treat an ear infection and it doesn’t clear up, you should make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. You may need prescription antibiotics.

If an allergic reaction occurs, seek immediate medical attention. A severe allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, is considered a medical emergency and can be recognized by symptoms such as:

  • A sudden breakout of hives or rash
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden watery diarrhea
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats
  • Swelling of the face, mouth
  • A feeling of impending doom

If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to shock, coma, asphyxiation, heart or respiratory failure, and death

Ear Infection Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Child

Summary

Essential oils may be useful in treating ear infections and alleviating symptoms, but more research is needed to support their effectiveness and safety. Be sure to dilute the oils before using them on your ear. It is best to consult your healthcare provider before using essential oils for an ear infection.

A Word From Verywell

Using essential oils is one way to treat an ear infection, but there are risks. There are other at-home treatments that may be safer, such as applying a warm compress or heating pad to the ear, buying over-the-counter eardrops with painkillers, or taking oral pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.