Over-the-Counter Ear Drops: Types and Functions

Treatment is required for various types of ear conditions, such as ear infections, bullous myringitis (infection of the eardrum), and eustachian tube dysfunction. In some cases, prescription ear drops or other types of medications will need to be used.

Over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops can be used to help relieve symptoms associated with these types of conditions, but there are no available OTC ear drops that will treat infections. In the case of other issues such as wax buildup, OTC ear drops may be used as a possible form of treatment.

Doctor putting drops in little girl's ear

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Earwax Removal Drops

Excess buildup of earwax can lead to a variety of unwanted symptoms, including:

  • Fullness in the ear
  • Ear pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear ringing (tinnitus)
  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Ear discharge
  • Ear odor
  • Dizziness
  • Ear infections

When the wax builds up enough to cause symptoms, removal is required. It can be done using ear drops. OTC ear drops are either water or oil based. Ingredients typically found in earwax removal eardrops include glycerin, mineral oil, and saline solutions. These ear drops may also contain other substances, such as carbamide peroxide, baking soda, and acetic acid.

How Ear Drops Work for Earwax

All ear drops are designed to break down and dissolve the earwax buildup that is causing issues. The different substances used in the drops work in different ways:

  • Mineral oil: Some OTC ear drops contain various types of mineral oil. Mineral oil softens hard and dry wax, which allows the wax to be cleared out of the ear once it becomes soft enough.
  • Glycerin: Glycerin is used to soften the wax that has built up in the ears. This helps to clear any blockage or buildup, as the wax can then clear out on its own.
  • Carbamide peroxide: Carbamide peroxide releases oxygen in the ear. The oxygen that’s released causes foaming within the ear, and that foam softens, loosens, and helps remove the excess buildup of wax.
  • Saline solution: Saline solution helps soften the wax that has become hard.
  • Baking soda: Since baking soda is an alkaline (high on the pH scale) substance, it can help clear out earwax by dissolving it. It can do this because the earwax is acidic. The chemical reaction that occurs between baking soda and earwax is what dissolves the earwax.
  • Acetic acid: Acetic acid is found in water-based ear drops and helps dissolve the earwax buildup.

Although ear drops can be helpful in the removal of built-up earwax, there are some downfalls. For those who have sensitive skin, ear drops can cause irritation of the skin in and around the ear canal. Therefore, they should be used sparingly or as directed.

Some popular OTC ear drops include Polysporin Plus Pain Relief Ear Drops, Biovea Ear Soothing Oil, Hyland’s Earache Drops, and Murine Ear Drops. Be sure to read the directions and ingredient list carefully and speak to a doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure which ear drops are right for you.

Fluid Drying (Swimmer’s Ear) Drops

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an outer ear infection that affects the ear canal. The condition is caused by water that gets trapped in the ear, a lack of protective ear wax, and injury to the ear canal.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the ear that can become worse if the ear is tugged or pressed on
  • Pain that spreads to the side of the face closest to the affected ear
  • An itchy ear canal
  • Foul-smelling pus coming from the ear that is yellow or yellow-green
  • Blocked ear
  • Swelling and redness in the outer ear area
  • Hearing loss or a decrease in hearing
  • Slight fever

Prescription ear drops are sometimes used by people with swimmer’s ear if the infection requires antibiotic treatment, but OTC ear drops may be used to help dry out the ears quicker. This can help clear up the infection.

The ingredients used in ear drops that help dry out the ears include isopropyl alcohol or glycerin. The alcohol in the ear drops works by combining itself with the water in the ear. The water-alcohol combination then evaporates, drying out the ear.

If symptoms continue to persist or become worse after using an OTC ear drop for swimmer’s ear, see a physician since a prescription is likely needed.

Using ear drops properly will require you to lie down on your side with the affected ear facing the ceiling. Once you administer the drops, you will then stay lying in that position for at least two minutes.

Anesthetic (Numbing) Ear Drops

Anesthetic ear drops can help alleviate pain and swelling caused by ear infections. They aren’t often recommended, though, because they do not treat the infection, and other pain relievers can be used such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, these types of ear drops should only be used after a careful and thorough evaluation of the included ingredients. This is because they have not been evaluated for safety or efficacy for everyday use for ear pain and swelling associated with various ear infections.

Ingredients that have been shown to cause adverse reactions include:

  • Benzocaine
  • Benzocaine and antipyrine
  • Benzocaine, antipyrine, and zinc acetate
  • Benzocaine, chloroxylenol, and hydrocortisone
  • Chloroxylenol and pramoxine
  • Chloroxylenol, pramoxine, and hydrocortisone

If you are experiencing ear pain and think you may have an ear infection, the best thing to do is to use an approved OTC oral pain reliever and make an appointment with your primary care physician to have it checked out.

Ear Infection Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Child

When Not to Use Ear Drops

If you have or suspect you have a ruptured eardrum, you should avoid using ear drops completely. This is because if there is a hole or a way through the eardrum, chemicals can make their way into the middle ear and cause harm.

A few symptoms you may notice if you have a ruptured eardrum include:

If you think you may have a ruptured eardrum, see your doctor and refrain from using any OTC ear drops.

OTC ear drops may help relieve some symptoms of various ear infections, but they will not treat the infection itself. To treat an ear infection properly, you have to see your doctor. They will help determine what is causing the infection and how severe it is, and prescribe the appropriate antifungal or antibacterial ear drops.

Summary

Ear drops can help treat several health issues affecting the ear. They are generally safe and effective, but you should not use ear drops if you suspect you have a ruptured eardrum. In that case, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

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