How to Use Ear Drops Correctly

Step-by-Step Instructions for Adults and Children

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).

Types of Ear Drops

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


Unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise, ear drops should never be used if you have a ruptured eardrum. Doing so allows potentially damaging chemicals into the middle ear. This even includes antibiotic ear drops meant to clear an infection.

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 healthcare provider 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.

How to use ear drops correctly
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell


When preparing to use ear drops, always make a point of reading the product instructions carefully, including the list of possible side effects. If the instructions are unclear, speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

You should also check the expiration date. If the drops are expired or appear contaminated, throw them away.

Ear drops are best used at room temperature. 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.

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

Usage in 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.

Usage in 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.

Side Effects or Complications

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 healthcare provider. This is especially true if you have an allergic reaction characterized by burning, itching, redness, or localized rash.

Allergy Warning

Call 911 or seek emergency care if you develop a rash, hives, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, facial swelling, lightheadedness, or a rapid heartbeat after using an ear drop.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are ear drops used for?

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

  • How do you give ear drops to adults and children?

    Start by positioning the individual with the affected ear facing upward. For adults and teens, gently pulls the earlobe out and up to straighten the ear canal before added the recommended number of drops. For children, pull the ear lobe out and 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, and swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat.

  • When should you not use ear drops?

    Ear drops should never be used on anyone with a ruptured eardrum or who has had a hypersensitive reaction to any of the ingredients in an ear drop. Antibiotic drops are not used to treat viral infections (including shingles) or fungal infections.

  • Are over-the-counter ear drops safe?

    Those used for ear wax removal or swimmer's ear are generally safe. However, the Food and Drug Administration advises against over-the-counter anesthetic ear drops and recommends only those prescribed by a healthcare provider. Antibiotic and corticosteroid ear drops are only available by prescription.

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Article 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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  2. Mezger E, Wendler O, Mayr S, Bozzato A. Anaphylactic reaction following administration of nose drops containing benzalkonium chloride. Head Face Med. 2012;8:29. doi:10.1186/1746-160X-8-29

  3. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Which ear drops help in the treatment of outer ear infections? In: [Internet]. Updated February 13, 2021.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Use only approved prescription eardrops. Updated July 10, 2015.