Ear infections are one of the most disruptive, painful, and yet seemingly insignificant health issues that you will encounter. But instead of expensive antibiotics and ear drops that don’t work, what if there was another way to quickly treat & relieve your infection? With an array of antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral properties, essential oils are effective solutions to healing ear infections. Ready to say goodbye to swimmer’s ear or your middle ear infection? Let’s find out why EOs are such a powerful remedy, which ones you should use, and how to safely use them to kick that infection by the weekend.
What’s causing your ear infection?
Ear infections can stem from both bacteria or viruses, and often occur after a cold or allergy that results in fluid build-up in the ear. The cause of the ear infection, as well as the type, influences the course of treatment.
Typically, bacterial infections usually go away in 2-3 days, but are often treated with antibiotics if they persist past that timeline. Viral ear infections may last 1-2 days longer, and also be accompanied by a fever. If it doesn’t resolve on its own, your doctor may prescribe antivirals.
Different Types of Ear Infections
There are three main types of ear infections, all of which are caused by different factors and require unique treatments.
Middle ear infection (Otitis media)
The most common type of ear infection, otitis media, occurs in the middle ear. It often follows a cold, respiratory infection, or allergy that leads to accumulation of fluids and subsequent infection. It's most common in children and symptoms include earache, hearing loss, fever, and, in severe cases, rupture of the eardrum.
Swimmer’s ear (Otitis externa)
Swimmer’s ear affects the outer ear canal and is caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming or being submerged, especially for an extended period of time. The warm, damp environment creates an ideal place for bacteria to grow. This is common in children and anyone who swims, surfs, or dives regularly. Common symptoms include ear pain, redness, swelling, and occasional discharge.
This is an inflammation of the inner ear and is most often viral, though bacteria can trigger infections in certain cases. Similar to the other types, it follows a cold or flu, and can even be the result of certain antibiotics & other medications that harm the inner ear. Symptoms include dizziness, loss of balance, and hearing loss.
Common Medical Treatments for Infections
Bacterial infections are often treated with antibiotics, like amoxicillin. They can be effective for mild infections, but can lead to antibiotic resistance, especially if you experience chronic infections. As with every medicine, there are serious side effects which include nausea, diarrhea, and allergic reactions.
Viral infections cannot be treated with bacteria, though they generally resolve on their own without the need for antivirals. Many people use over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve the pain while their body treats the infection. However, excessive use of these analgesics (painkillers) can cause liver or kidney issues.
For milder cases, home treatments like warm compresses or OTC ear drops may relieve pain, but they won’t be enough to treat severe infections.
Essential Oils vs. Traditional Treatments
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts, derived from various parts of plants like the leaves, seeds, woods, flowers, fruits, needles, and berries. When removed from the plant, the active ingredients are far more potent, increasing their effectiveness.
EOs have been used for hundreds of years as aromatherapy treatments for a number of health conditions, including ear infections. Many of them are characterized by their antibacterial, antimicrobial, analgesic, and antiviral properties, all of which are necessary in relieving & treating infections. They can prevent the growth of bacteria and relieve pain & discomfort, all without expensive medications or concerning side effects.
5 Essential Oils to Treat Your Next Ear Infection
Try out these 5 oils the next time you need to get rid of an ear infection, or combine them to create a healing aromatherapy blend.
1. Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil has been used by Aboriginal cultures for thousands of years, primarily because of its antimicrobial properties. This natural remedy has demonstrated “clear” broad-spectrum activity as an antibacterial, antiviral, antiprotozoal, and antifungal, all of which play a role in preventing & reducing symptoms from common ear infections.
Shop Organic Tea Tree Oil ($9.95)
2. Lavender Oil
Lavender oil can provide symptomatic relief for ear infections, thanks to its calming and anti-inflammatory properties. Infections are often associated with general pain around the ear, and there’s no better oil for pain-relief than lavender. There’s also anecdotal evidence that suggests that Australian-grown lavandula displays “good antibacterial activity against a range of bacteria.” It can also help you fall asleep & stay asleep, which may be useful if your ear pain is causing you to toss & turn all night.
3. Basil Oil
Basil oil is widely touted as a powerful antimicrobial & anti-inflammatory, two properties which are critical in fighting & treating ear infections. It can be used to reduce infection and relieve the associated earache. One animal study from the Journal of Infectious Diseases determined that placing basil oil in the ear canal of rats is an effective treatment of acute otitis media (middle ear infection). Though an anecdotal study, it demonstrates the power of this oil, healing up to 81% of the rats in the study. However, we never recommend placing it directly into your ear – we have specific instructions below.
4. Thyme Oil
Thyme oil’s active ingredient, thymol, makes it a strong antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal agent. It’s often used alongside traditional remedies to treat ear infections, in addition to having a number of other health benefits. However, it’s quite powerful on its own, reducing the growth of bacteria & reducing symptoms. As with the other essential oils, much of the evidence is anecdotal, meaning absolute conclusions cannot be drawn. Additionally, it should never be applied directly to the ear without a carrier oil.
5. Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil is best-known for its strong scent, cooling sensation, and anti-inflammatory properties, which are primarily attributed to menthol, the primary active ingredient. It’s widely used in pharmaceutical products and may offer symptom relief for ear infections when used properly. The scientific evidence for its direct use as a treatment for ear infections is limited for now, but a comparative study found that it inhibited the growth of microorganisms at a similar rate to the popular antibiotic, gentamycin.
How to Use EOs to Treat Your Ear Infection
There are several ways to use these oils to treat your ear infection, and you can use one or several, depending on your preferences. However, we recommend consulting with your doctor before using.
Dilute a few drops of your chosen EO with a carrier oil such as jojoba or coconut, then dip a cotton ball into the mixture. Gently place it into your ear without pressing it in all the way, as this can cause it to get stuck, worsening your pain & infection.
Dip a cotton swab in a diluted mixture and spread it over the infected skin on the outer part of your ear canal. Do not insert the cotton swab deep into your ear canal – you do not want to irritate the inflamed skin or push earwax further into the canal.
Sanitize a small ear dropper with your diluted solution, then lay down so that your head is sideways. Add a few drops of the solution to the dropper, letting them soak into your ear for 2-3 minutes. If you have a partner or family member that can assist you, it may be easier to add the drops. Afterwards, simply turn your head to the other side to let it drip out, catching the oil with a napkin to avoid a mess.
Add a few drops of essential oil to a small bowl of water, then soak a rag into the bowl to soak up the solution. Wring out the excess liquid to avoid making a mess, then lay down and place the compress on your ear for five minutes.
Once you find a method that works for you, repeat two to three times per day until your ear infection is resolved.
Ear infections can cause significant discomfort, but various treatment options exist, including essential oils. With a healthy list of antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties, oils like tea tree, lavender, and peppermint can naturally alleviate symptoms and kill infection-causing bacteria. Yet, it's crucial to remember, while essential oils may provide symptom relief, they're not a substitute for professional medical advice and should be used responsibly and under the guidance of a healthcare provider. Always consult your doctor for severe or persistent ear infections.