For most outer ear infections, your doctor will prescribe an eardrop that contains a combination of:

  • an acidic solution to make the ear canal a less favourable environment for bacteria to grow
  • a steroid to reduce swelling and inflammation
  • an antibiotic or antifungal

Your doctor will first clear the debris out of the ear canal. In severe cases, if the canal is partly closed by inflammation, a wick can be inserted to draw the eardrops in. The wick expands and holds the medication close to the infected area in the ear. For severe infections, antibiotics taken by mouth will be prescribed. Treatment of malignant otitis externa requires several weeks of antibiotics given into a vein.

To help ease the pain associated with an outer ear infection, pain relievers such as acetaminophen*, ibuprofen, or naproxen can be used. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about which pain medication is best for you.

While you are being treated for an outer ear infection, don’t swim or fly and keep water out of your ear.

To help prevent outer ear infections, it's always a good idea to dry the ears thoroughly after showering or swimming. You can use a hair dryer set on the lowest setting. Never direct a shower jet directly into the ear canal. Also, don’t use cotton swabs to clean or dry the ear canal. To prevent outer ear infections due to swimming, wear a swimming cap or use over-the-counter eardrops with acetic acid or alcohol after swimming. Avoid earplugs, as they actually can increase the risk of outer ear infections. If you or your child get recurrent infections, or if these preventative measures do not work, contact your doctor.

Precautions for using eardrops

In general, eardrops for outer ear infections should not be used  if you have a broken eardrum. They also should not be taken for a longer period than recommended by a doctor. Treatment usually lasts between 7 and 10 days. Even though most symptoms are relieved after 3 days of treatment, the drops should be continued for the full course to make sure that the infection has been thoroughly treated.

Eardrops for outer ear infections may cause burning or irritation of the ear canal. Some medications, particularly neomycin and corticosteroids, can also trigger allergic reactions. Some eardrops, such as gentamicin or neomycin, may cause ototoxicity (damage to the nerve that controls our hearing, which can lead to hearing loss). Using these medications when you have a broken eardrum, or for periods longer than one week, can increase this risk. Otherwise, the risk is very low.

Applying the medication properly will make sure that it takes effect quickly to relieve pain and to remove the infection.

How to use eardrops:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Hold the bottle in your hands for a few minutes. This will warm up the eardrops to body temperature.
  • Tilt your head or lie on one side with the affected ear facing up.
  • For people over 3 years of age: pull the top of the ear up and back to help straighten the ear canal.
  • For people 3 years of age and under: pull the top of the ear down and back to help straighten the ear canal.
  • Squeeze the recommended number of drops from the dropper into the ear canal.
  • Don't change body position for a few minutes minutes after giving the drops.
  • Do not touch the tip of the dropper or allow it to touch anything. This will prevent contamination.
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team