Young girl with ear infection.

Ear infections: When to treat at home and when to call a doctor

Ear infections are extremely common – especially in children.

But do you need an antibiotic if you get one? Maybe, but maybe not.

Many ear infections will resolve on their own without the use of an antibiotic, so often they can be treated with simple, easily accessible treatments.

“The biggest thing we are trying to do is manage pain and discomfort,” said Kristine Ray, MD, an OSF HealthCare pediatrician.

Controlling pain and symptoms at home

Mild ear infection symptoms can be controlled with:

  • A hot or cold compress
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen

Other home remedies, such as numbing drops, or homeopathic remedies, such as essential oils, are not recommended for ear infections.

Over-the-counter numbing drops don’t provide long-lasting relief, Dr. Ray said. And essential oils are an unproven treatment.

“For the most part, these are not super well-studied. If the ear infection gets so bad that the pressure on the eardrum is enough, it can actually poke a hole in the eardrum. In those cases, those substances can actually get into the middle ear,” where they could cause additional harm, Dr. Ray said.

“In general, I am not a fan of putting anything in the ear canal to treat these ear infections.”

When to call a doctor

Urgent care can treat minor illnesses

> Find urgent care near you

Consider talking with a doctor about your symptoms and options for treatment if:

  • Symptoms persist – or get worse – over two to three days.
  • Infection is recurring. A child who has three or more ear infections in a six-month period (or four infections in 12 months) may be referred to a specialist for pressure equalization tubes.
  • Pain is severe.

Ear infections can usually be treated in urgent care clinics, or by your child’s pediatrician.

“If you’re able to get in with your primary care provider, that is going to be preferred – especially if it’s a recurring issue. We know that kids get sick frequently, so pediatrician offices usually have several appointments available every day for kids who need to be seen on short notice,” Dr. Ray said.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale is a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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