Learn How to Use Ear Drops Correctly to Maximize Their Impact

Step-by-Step Instructions for Adults and Children

Administering ear drops.
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There are many ear disorders that can be treated with ear drops including middle ear infections, swimmer's ear, excessive ear wax, and ear pain.

While it's possible to self-administer ear drops, the angle of the auditory tube can sometimes be a little tricky. In instances like these, it often helps to have a second set of hands (or a third if you plan to give them to a child).

Some of the more common types of ear drops include:

  • Acid-based detergents to break up ear wax
  • Alcohol and acetic acid solutions to prevent swimmer's ears
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
  • Anesthetics to help numb ear pain

When to Avoid Ear Drops

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, ear drops should never be used if you have a ruptured eardrum. Using them when the tympanic membrane is broken allows potentially damaging chemicals into the middle ear. These include hydrocortisone drops as well as certain antibiotic and anesthetic drops.

You can often tell the eardrum is ruptured if there is a sharp pain, drainage, or a popping noise followed by the immediate relief of pain and pressure. See your doctor if you believe your eardrum is ruptured, and avoid placing anything in your ear until then. In most cases, the eardrum will repair itself within a matter of days.

Before Starting

Ear drops are best used at room temperature. Ear drops that are too cold or hot can make you feel dizzy and disoriented. If you carry them in your pant pocket for 30 minutes, you can usually get them to the right temperature.

In addition:

  • Always read the package instructions clearly, including the list of potential side effects. If the instructions are unclear, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Check the expiration date. If the drops are expired or appear contaminated, throw them away.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Have a towel or two handy.

Administering Drops for Adults and Teens

These instructions apply if you are alone or have a friend who can help:

  1. Fold the towel in half and lay it on a kitchen or bathroom counter.
  2. Lay your head on the towel with your affected ear up.
  3. You or your friend should then gently pull the earlobe out and up to straighten the auditory tube.
  4. Carefully administer the recommended number of drops into the ear canal.
  5. Gently push on the ear flap to encourage the liquid into the ear.
  6. Stay there for at least a minute or two to ensure the medication is coating the ear canal fully.
  7. Repeat on the other side if needed.

Administering Drops for Children

This one requires one or even two additional people, especially if the child is young or squeamish. In this instance, one person would administer the drops while the other would keep the child still.

The procedure is also slightly different because the auditory tube in children is shorter and has a more horizontal angle.

To administer the drops safely:

  1. Fold a clean towel in half and place it on the floor or bed.
  2. Have the child lay his or her head on the towel, affected ear up.
  3. If needed, a second adult can hold the child's head still. If the child is especially fidgety, the adult should lie down and cradle the child while keeping the head restrained.
  4. The person administering the drops should gently pull the earlobe out and down (rather than out and up) to straighten the auditory tube.
  5. Administer the prescribed number of drops.
  6. Gently push on the flap of the ear or plug the ear with a cotton ball.
  7. Keep the child in this position for several minutes.
  8. Repeat on the other ear if needed.

The process for infants and toddlers is more or less the same. Infants can be swaddled in a blanket (with arms in) to keep them comfortable and still. Toddlers may need to be cradled on the bed with their arms and legs fully restrained.

A Word From Verywell

The ear is a delicate structure and can respond differently to different medications. If you have any abnormal reactions after using the drops, call your doctor. This is especially true if you have an allergic reaction characterized by burning, itching, redness, or localized rash.

If the symptoms are accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, hives, facial swelling, a rapid heartbeat, or lightheadedness, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.

While rare, ear drops can sometimes trigger a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. If left untreated, anaphylaxis may lead to coma, shock, cardiac or respiratory failure, and even death.

View Article Sources
  • Burton, M.; Aaron, K.; and Warner, L. "Ear drops for the removal of ear wax." Cochrane Data Syst Rev. 2016; 4: CD012171. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD012171.