Mild-to-moderate ear infections often clear up on their own. In these cases, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can be used to provide comfort if needed.
Avoid OTC antihistamines, decongestants, ear candles, and hydrogen peroxide. They may worsen your ear infection.
Your healthcare provider can help you decide if you need prescription antibiotics or antivirals. They may also recommend “watchful waiting.” This is where you watch your ear infection symptoms for 2 to 3 days to see if you need further treatment.
Ear infections can be frustrating, especially if you get them often. They can disrupt your routine by causing pain and other annoying symptoms. And although they can happen at any age, they’re most common in kids ages 2 and younger. In fact, it’s estimated that half of all kids will have at least one ear infection before they turn 2 years old.
Regardless of age, there are three types of ear infections. Each type corresponds to one of the three areas of the ear — the inner ear, middle ear, or outer ear. Most people think of a middle ear infection (otitis media) when they refer to an ear infection. But outer ear infections, known as swimmer’s ear, are also common.
If you think you have an ear infection, you may have questions about over-the-counter (OTC) ear infection medicines. Read along as we discuss if you can treat an ear infection at home, your options for OTC ear infection relief, and when to see a healthcare provider.
Bacteria, viruses, or fungi can cause ear infections. But because you can’t see inside your ear with the naked eye, your symptoms may be the only way to suspect if you have one. And they can vary depending on the area of the ear that’s infected.
Common symptoms of an ear infection can include:
Tugging at the ear
If you or your child have symptoms like these, an ear infection could be a possibility. To confirm an ear infection, a healthcare provider typically needs to look inside your ear using a medical device called an otoscope. They can also check to see if a bacteria, virus, or something else is causing your infection.
Keep in mind that more serious symptoms can also develop that require prompt medical attention. More on these later.
Luckily, many ear infections clear up on their own. For this reason, the first-choice treatment of many mild ear infections is focused on symptom management. So, is there a go-to OTC medication for ear infection relief?
The CDC recommends OTC pain relievers — such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) — to control pain and inflammation caused by ear infections. For moderate pain, your healthcare provider may recommend that you alternate between acetaminophen and ibuprofen throughout the day.
These medications are generally safe to take, but make sure to ask a healthcare provider or pharmacist about the dosing of these medications before giving them a try. They can also advise you on if these medications are safe for you to take.
Keep in mind: Not all OTC pain relievers are appropriate for children. Anyone younger than 19 years old shouldn’t take aspirin. This is because it can cause a dangerous illness called Reye’s syndrome. Children younger than 6 months should also avoid ibuprofen. Acetaminophen is the main pain relief option for young kids.
The FDA hasn’t recommended any OTC ear drops to treat ear infections. But, an ear drying drop containing isopropyl alcohol may be beneficial for swimmer’s ear. These ear drops are only appropriate if water is clogged in the ear canal.
However, ear drying drops may only slow the growth of bacteria. They do not treat the infection itself. They also haven’t been widely studied in clinical trials.
OTC products are available to treat various ear problems. But not all of them are suitable for treating an ear infection. So, how do you know which ones to avoid?
No. Allergy medicines — such as antihistamines and decongestants — are often used to dry out excess fluids in the body. The latest clinical guidelines from the American Academy of Family Physicians do not recommend using antihistamines or decongestants for ear infections. Using these allergy medications to treat ear infections provides little benefit and may cause more harm than good.
No, ear candles should never be used — especially for ear infections. Ear candling is claimed to suction out earwax by lighting a hollow candle inside the ear canal. Ear candling has not been proven to work for any ear condition. They can lead to serious injuries, such as puncturing your eardrum or burning your head.
No. You should avoid using hydrogen peroxide for ear infections. Hydrogen peroxide is normally used to remove earwax. But if you have an ear infection, it can cause more damage. It can cause bubbling or irritation if left inside the ear canal.
It depends on the severity.
Mild-to-moderate ear infections frequently go away on their own. Fortunately, you can usually treat your symptoms at home in these situations. The CDC recommends rest, plenty of fluids, and pain relievers as the main home remedies for ear infections.
But severe ear infections can’t, and shouldn’t, be treated at home. You may need to take antibiotic or antiviral medications. Antibiotics and antivirals aren’t available OTC — they’re only available with a prescription. In rare cases, your healthcare provider may also need to insert a small tube to help your ear drain.
If you need an antiviral medication, you should start taking it as soon as possible. For instance, if a virus like the flu has led to an ear infection, antiviral medications should ideally be taken within a few days of getting sick.
If you need an antibiotic, time isn’t usually as sensitive. Your healthcare provider may recommend taking them right away, or they could recommend that you “watch and wait” before attempting to treat the infection.
The “watch and wait” method, also known as watchful waiting, is when your healthcare provider recommends waiting 2 to 3 days to see if you need antibiotics. This gives your immune system time to fight off the infection. Antibiotics are effective in curing infections, but they should only be used when necessary to avoid side effects.
As mentioned, in many ear infection cases, the infection is due to a virus or weak bacteria. Thankfully, these mild infections can resolve without the need to see a healthcare provider.
But in other cases, your immune system may not be able to fight off the infection, causing continued discomfort. You should seek medical attention if you have any of the following:
Symptoms that last for more than 2 to 3 days
A fever of 102°F (39°C) or higher
Pus or fluid coming from the ear
If you or a loved one gets ear infections often, here are a few ways to prevent them:
Clean your hands to prevent the spread of germs
Dry your ears thoroughly after water activities
Breastfeed children for at least 12 months
Don’t smoke, and try to avoid secondhand smoke
Mild-to-moderate ear infections usually resolve on their own without the need for prescription medications. You may be able to take OTC pain relievers — acetaminophen or ibuprofen — to make yourself more comfortable during your recovery. You should see a healthcare provider if you have severe symptoms or symptoms lasting for more than 2 to 3 days.
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