Ear drops can come in many forms and may be purchased over the counter or available only by prescription. Typically, drops are used for three specific purposes. These are removing wax, drying out the ear after swimming, and either treating or preventing ear infections that are bacterial or viral.
Wax removal ear drops typically contain some form of oil, which helps to soften waxy buildup in the ears. They may be used alone or used in combination with ear washes to help remove excess wax. Though all people have some earwax, some people produce it in greater amounts and may need to clean out the ears regularly to avoid ear pain. Occasionally when a person cleans the ears, he or she pushes wax onto the eardrum, which can dull sound. If hearing loss is noted, get a doctor’s recommendation before using drops, unless this is a commonly occurring problem noted in the past.
Swimmers may use another form of drops to help dry the ears after swimming and prevent swimmer’s ear. These over the counter drops usually contain alcohol and may also have acetic acid. This combination can help prevent some bacteria from forming in the ear and may help solve the “water in the ear" problem of excessive swimming. People who swim very frequently might be better served by using earplugs instead, as this will help prevent water from entering the ears and creating this issue.
Many types of drops are prescribed to treat ear infections. These drops contain a liquid antibiotic and may also have a steroid ingredient. Ear drops with steroids might be more effective in reducing swelling or pain associated with ear infection. Some doctors do not prescribe drops, but instead prescribe oral antibiotics for the treatment of ear infections.
Steroid drops may be more effective when treating viral ear infections because antibiotics will not work in this case. They can help reduce pain and swelling but many doctors are reluctant to use them if pain can be addressed through other means. Taking a mild pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be just as effective in treating pain.
When kids have ear tube placement surgery, they may also require antibiotic ear drops. This can be standard treatment for a few weeks after surgery to prevent infection. Doctors may prescribe oral antibiotics too, depending upon the extent of the surgery and the presence of infection prior to placing the tubes.