5 Ways to Drain Fluid From the Middle Ear At Home

And when medical treatment may be needed

Fluid in the middle ear (serous otitis media) can build up due to a middle ear infection, allergies, a sinus infection, a viral infection, and even acid reflux. It can be painful and make it difficult to hear.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to drain fluid from your middle ear at home. Such home remedies include applying a warm compress, inhaling steam, popping your ears, and a technique known as the Valsalva maneuver. Over-the-counter medicines may also help.

This article offers five suggestions for how to drain fluid from the middle ear at home. It also outlines when you may need to skip or stop using them and see a healthcare provider for treatment.

Potential Ways to Drain Fluid From the Middle Eat - Illustration by Jessica Olah

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Pop Your Ears

Fluid naturally drains from the middle ear to the throat through the eustachian tube. But if an infection or irritation is present, that tube can swell. This causes fluid to back up.

Popping your ears can help open the eustachian tube, allowing fluid to drain. The simplest way to pop your ears is to yawn, chew, or swallow.

You may also want to try popping your ears using something called the Valsalva maneuver:

  1. Take a deep breath and hold it.
  2. Gently pinch your nose shut.
  3. Slowly and gently exhale through your nose.

You may hear a pop when the eustachian tube opens.

Create a Vacuum

If you are unable to pop your ears with the above techniques, try this:

  • Cup your hand over your ear so your palm covers the entire ear.
  • Press your palm into your ear and try to create a seal.
  • Using very slight moves, gently pulse your palm in and out creating a vacuum.

You should feel a little pressure inside the ear as you press in. You may feel or hear a slight pop when the eustachian tube opens.

Inhale Steam

Steam inhalation through the nose is known for clearing the sinuses. And because the eustachian tube is connected to the sinus cavity, steam can also open up a clogged tube and allow trapped fluid in the middle ear to drain.

You can inhale steam using a personal steam inhaler, an electric device that turns water into steam and has a soft, flexible plastic mask that you hold up to your nose.

You can also fill a large bowl or pot with boiled water, cover the back of your head with the towel, lean over the bowl, and breathe through your nose.

Gargle With Saltwater

Doctors often recommend gargling with salt water to help drain fluid from the ears. This may help in a few different ways.

First, warm salt water helps to soothe and shrink swollen tissues. It's a go-to natural remedy for sore throats, which often accompany earaches.

In addition, because the eustachian tube connects to the back of the throat, a saltwater gargle may help to relieve swelling, allowing trapped water to drain.

Furthermore, the act of gargling may also help to pop your ears, which can allow the water to drain.

To gargle with salt water, add a teaspoon of salt to one cup of warm water. Stir and allow the salt to dissolve. Take a mouthful of saltwater, keep your throat closed, and tilt your head back. Gurgle for 30 seconds to one minute.

Use Ear Drops

It may seem counter-intuitive to add liquid into your ear when you are trying to get fluid out, but it may help.

You have two options: An over-the-counter (OTC) formula or one that you make yourself.

OTC Ear Drops

Fluid-drying ear drops are available over the counter. Traditional ear drops for swimmers' ears contain isopropyl alcohol in a base of anhydrous glycerine. Sold as Debrox Swimmer's Ear or similar store-brand drops, the alcohol dries up the fluid.

Homeopathic ear drops are also available. These contain pulsatilla, graphite, and sulfur. However, these products do not dry up fluid from swimmer's ear. Instead, they treat the other symptoms of fluid in the ear including pain, a blocked sensation in the ear, and itchiness.

DIY Ear Drops

Different homemade ear drop formulas can sometimes help fluid drain or dry up.

Some ideas to try:

  • Distilled water that is room temperature or warmer
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • A one-to-one mixture of alcohol and white vinegar
  • Warmed olive oil

Using a clean eye dropper, draw up the solution, then place a few drops on your wrist to check the temperature. If it feels hot or cold, wait a few minutes for it to come closer to room temperature.

Lie on your side or tilt your head so the affected ear is facing upward. Put several drops of the solution into your affected ear. Stay in this position for five to 15 minutes to allow the drops to work. You may hear a crackling sound or feel pressure, but it should not hurt.

Place a cotton ball or towel up to the outside of the ear and tilt your head in the opposite direction.

If after a minute or two you do not feel fluid start to drain out of the ear, gently tug on your ear lobe. You may feel a slight popping sensation as the water releases.

Easing Symptoms With OTC Medication

Anti-inflammatories, decongestants, and antihistamines will not drain fluid from your middle ear, but they may make related symptoms more tolerable while you wait for your condition to resolve.

Anti-Inflammatories

While anti-inflammatory medications won’t clear up an infection or remove the fluid from the inner ear, they will reduce the pain until enough fluid leaves the ear to stop being painful.

Try:

  • Advil, Motrin (ibuprofen)
  • Aleve (naproxen sodium)

Decongestants and Antihistamines

A decongestant like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) or an antihistamine like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can help relieve some of the symptoms of an infection. They won't cure the cause of your middle ear fluid build-up, however.

Ask your healthcare provider if it is safe for you to take Sudafed, as it can affect your blood pressure and heart rate.

Be sure to see a healthcare provider if your ear infection does not improve.

What Not to Do

Though it may be tempting, avoid digging into your ear with cotton swabs, your finger, or any other object. Doing so can introduce bacteria into the ear canal and cause a minor irritation to become an infections. Putting objects into your ear can also push water deeper into your ear and scrape or puncture the ear drum.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

If left untreated, serous otitis media can cause hearing loss and bone and cartilage damage. If at-home treatments don't drain the middle ear, or you have other symptoms listed here, see your healthcare provider:

  • Pain inside the ear that worsens when you tug on the outer ear
  • A sensation that the ear is blocked or full
  • Foul-smelling or pus-colored drainage from the ear
  • Fever
  • Decreased hearing
  • Intense pain that may spread to the neck, face, or side of the head
  • Swollen lymph nodes around the ear or in the upper neck
  • Redness or swelling of the skin around the ear

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine your ear, looking for redness and swelling in your ear canal. They may also take a sample of any abnormal fluid or discharge in your ear (ear culture), especially if you have recurrent or persistent ear infections.

What At-Home Treatments Don't Work

If you have tried home remedies and over-the-counter treatments without success, or if your healthcare provider suspects a bacterial infection, prescribe medication may be recommended. In some cases, surgery may be needed.

Antibiotics

If you have an ear infection, your healthcare provider will prescribe an antibiotic. Amoxicillin-clavulanate is usually recommended unless you have a penicillin allergy. Those with penicillin allergies will likely be given azithromycin or cefdinir. 

Myringotomy

Those who don’t respond to antibiotics or continue to have problems with the middle ear may receive a recommendation for a surgical procedure called a myringotomy.

During this procedure, your healthcare provider will create a small hole in your eardrum. This hole will allow the fluid to drain. Many times while the healthcare provider is in there, they will place a tube to keep this from happening again.

This simple procedure is done in the healthcare provider's office without anything more than a topical anesthetic to keep the procedure pain-free.

A Word From Verywell

Ear infections in adults can lead to hearing loss if not treated properly. If you suspect you have an ear infection, you must speak to a healthcare provider to receive the appropriate treatment. Not only will they treat the reason for the fluid in your ear, but they will also try to prevent this from happening in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does middle ear fluid drain on its own?

    Most of the time, fluid will drain from the middle ear naturally. However, fluid can get trapped and build up.

  • Does microsuction remove middle-ear fluid?

    No, but it may bring some relief. The process involves a healthcare practitioner using a thin tube attached to a vacuum to quickly and painlessly remove ear wax from outside the eardrum. This can improve the membrane's flexibility, which may help it drain middle ear fluid.

5 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.
  1. MedlinePlus. Otitis media with effusion.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Middle-ear infection in adults.

  3. Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Ruptured eardrum.

  4. The American Academy of Otolaryngology–Heat and Neck Surgery. Swimmers ear (otitis externa).

  5. MedlinePlus. Ear tube insertion.