How to Use Ear Drops Correctly

Step-by-Step Instructions for Adults and Children

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Ear drops can treat many ear problems, including:

It's possible to give yourself ear drops but the angle of the auditory tube (ear canal) can make it tricky. A second set of hands can help. When giving ear drops to a child, a second adult may be necessary.

This article looks at some common types of ear drops, how they're used on people of different ages, possible side effects, and who shouldn't use ear drops.

Uses and Types of Ear Drops

Some of the more common uses and types of ear drops include:

  • Breaking up ear wax: Acid-based detergents
  • Preventing swimmer's ear: Alcohol and acetic acid solutions
  • Bacterial infections: Antibiotics
  • Numbing ear pain: Anesthetics
How to use ear drops correctly
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

How to Use Ear Drops

Before using ear drops, give the product instructions a thorough read. If they're not clear, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for directions.

Look over the list of possible side effects. Check the expiration date and throw away expired drops. Also, throw them out if they appear contaminated.

Always wash your hands with soap and water before using ear drops.

Temperature Matters

Ear drops are best used at room temperature. If they're too cold or hot, they can make you feel dizzy and disoriented. Carry cold drops in your pants pocket for 30 minutes to bring up the temperature.

Usage in Adults and Teens

These instructions apply whether you're alone or helping someone:

  1. Fold a towel in half and lay it on a kitchen or bathroom counter.
  2. Lay the head on the towel with the affected ear up.
  3. Gently pull the earlobe out and up to straighten the ear canal.
  4. Carefully put the recommended number of drops into the ear canal.
  5. Gently push on the ear flap to help move the liquid in deeper.
  6. Keep the head down for at least a minute or two so the medication can fully coat the canal.
  7. Repeat with the other ear if needed.

Usage in Children

The process can be harder in children, especially if they're young or squeamish. If possible, try to have two adults present: one to keep the child still and one to put the drops in.

The procedure is slightly different because children's ear canals are shorter and have a more horizontal angle.

To safely give them drops:

  1. Fold a clean towel in half and place it on the floor or bed.
  2. Have the child lay their head on the towel, affected ear up.
  3. One of you should hold the child's head still. If the child is especially fidgety, try lying down and cradling them while restraining the head.
  4. Gently pull the earlobe out and down (rather than out and up) to straighten the canal.
  5. Put in 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.

For an infant, try swaddling them to keep them still. Toddlers may need to be cradled with their arms and legs fully restrained.

Side Effects

The ear is a delicate structure. It doesn't always respond well to medications. If you have any abnormal reactions to the drops, call your healthcare provider.

This is especially true if you have an allergic reaction with:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • A rash in or around the ear

While rare, it's possible for ear drops to trigger a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. Untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to coma, shock, heart or lung failure, and even death.

Allergy Warning

Call 911 or get emergency care if you develop these symptoms after using ear drops:

  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Facial swelling
  • Lightheadedness
  • Rapid heartbeat


Contraindications

If you have a ruptured eardrum, don't use drops unless your healthcare provider says to. It can allow potentially damaging chemicals into the middle ear. This includes antibiotic ear drops for an infection.

Symptoms of a rupture are:

  • A sharp pain
  • Drainage from the ear
  • A popping noise immediately followed by the relief of pain and pressure

See your healthcare provider if you think an eardrum is ruptured. And don't put anything in your ear until it's been checked out. In most cases, the eardrum will repair itself within a matter of days.

Summary

Ear drops are common treatments for ear-related problems. You can give them to yourself but it may be easier with help.

When giving ear drops to a child, have two adults present if possible. That way, one can hold the child still while the other gives them the drops.

Read the instructions, check the expiration date, and wash your hands well before using the drops. Side effects, allergic reactions, and anaphylaxis are possible. Always get emergency medical care for a severe allergic reaction.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are ear drops used for?

    Ear drops are topical medications used to treat or prevent conditions of the outer ear (auris externa) and ear canal. These include:

    • Acid-based drops that break up ear wax
    • Alcohol and acetic acid drops that prevent swimmer's ear
    • Anesthetic drops that numb ear pain
    • Antibiotic drops to treat bacterial infections
    • Corticosteroid drops that reduce ear inflammation
  • How do you give ear drops to adults and children?

    Positioning them with the head down and the affected ear facing upward. For adults and teens, pull the earlobe out and up to straighten the ear canal. For children, pull the ear lobe out and down.

    Then put the drops in. Push on the ear flap to help the medicine work its way down.

  • What are side effects of ear drops?

    Some ear drops can cause temporary burning, stinging, or itching. Ear drops that are too cold can make you feel dizzy.

    Seek emergency care if you develop a severe allergic reaction after using ear drops, including:

    • Hives
    • Rash
    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Difficult breathing
    • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
  • When should you not use ear drops?

    Never use ear drops with a ruptured eardrum or if you've had an allergic reaction to any ingredients. Antibiotic drops are for bacterial infections, not viral or fungal infections.

  • Are over-the-counter ear drops safe?

    Over-the-counter (OTC) drops for ear wax removal or swimmer's ear are generally safe.

    However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against OTC anesthetic ear drops. They recommend only those prescribed by a healthcare provider.

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4 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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  3. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Which ear drops help in the treatment of outer ear infections? In: InformedHealth.org [Internet].

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Use only approved prescription eardrops.