Holistic Treatment

Got an Earache? The Remedy Is in Your Pantry, According to a Naturopathic Doctor

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Photo: Getty Images / Ian Hooton / Science Photo Library

People who get earaches on the reg can tell you that while they're obviously not as painful as say, cramps or migraines, they're still in that sweet spot of being just bothersome enough that it's hard to focus on anything else. And while most earaches resolve on their own (more on that in a sec), they still hurt—which makes home remedies such a tempting option.

As it's somehow still cold and flu season (also: allergy season) and thus peak angry ear season, Patti Kim, ND, LAC, an LA-based naturopathic doctor, kindly shared with Well+Good her go-to home remedies for earache. Are you all ears? You should be.

What usually causes an earache?

The usual cause of earaches, according to Dr. Kim, is an ear infection. There are actually two different kinds, she says. First, there’s swimmer’s ear, which is an external ear infection. “They call it swimmer’s ear because people get it from swimming,” Dr. Kim says. “The water will dry up the natural lipids and oil barriers [and] cause inflammation and irritation.” Don’t let the name fool you though—you definitely can still get it even you haven't been swimming (say, if you damaged your ear canal by going too hard on those Q-tips). 

Then there's the less-common middle ear infection (also called otitis media). Dr. Kim describes it as a “cold trapped in your ear” that usually comes from a bacterial or viral infection and while it's more common in children, it can still happen with adults. “Everyone’s eustachian tube that drains out of the ear is at a different angle,” she says. “If the angle is quite flat, it’s difficult for the ear to drain and infections can get trapped in there.”

Of course, earaches can also be caused by a number of other factors, including exposure to loud noises, having foreign objects lodged inside your ear, or even changing air pressure. But generally, Dr. Kim says that ear infections are the most common culprits.

Symptoms of an earache, Dr. Kim says, include lots of pain (duh) as well as tenderness, throbbing, aching, muffled or impaired hearing, congestion and pressure in the ear, and sometimes fever. With kids, she adds, you’ll often see them pulling on their ears to help relieve the pain.

Most earaches can resolve themselves on their own within a few days. But if you want some relief from that achy feeling (or your ibuprofen just isn't cutting it), Dr. Kim shares some of her favorite home remedies for earaches.

1. Use garlic and mullein oil drops

Garlic isn’t just good for adding tons of flavor to your food. It’s also loaded with health benefits including having antiviral, antibacterial, and pain-relieving properties—making it a good home remedy. Dr. Kim has been recommending garlic, along with mullein and olive oil, to her patients for years and says it “works like a charm.”

"Tilt the head, put the drops in [your ear], and then massage all the way down the neck so it really gets in there,” Dr. Kim says. Repeat one to three times per day. She says you can either DIY your garlic drops at home by heating olive oil and infusing it with garlic and mullein. Or, you can purchase it over the counter already made at most health food stores, she says.

2. Try a compress

Dr. Kim also advises alternating between applying hot and cold compresses (as hot and as cold as you can handle) to the ear and neck area at least three to five times a day.

“The sinuses and the ear canal, these are a lot of closed areas of the body where our blood sometimes has trouble getting into in terms of increasing circulation,” she says. “So you want to do that hot and cold to pump the blood and get the circulation going.”

3. Boost your immune system with herbs

It’s no secret that herbs are uber powerful for treating all sorts of ailments including PMS, the dreaded afternoon energy slump, adrenal fatigue, and bloating. Dr. Kim says they can also be helpful in addressing the underlying causes of earaches.

"Herbs are beautiful and wise and strengthen the immune system and help the body heal as a whole," Dr. Kim says. "So even if it's not a full blown ear infection, they will help lower inflammation and stimulate the immune system for the body to self- correct.”

For kids, Dr. Kim recommends elderberry, while she says adults can handle the stronger stuff like Oregon grape and Goldenseal. “Herbs can be used as a steam inhalation, tea or infusion, a capsule, or a tincture,” she says. “Dosing is more individual so it's best to see a naturopathic doctor to figure out individual dosing.”

If none of this is cutting it for you...

If you've been trying out your home remedies, or popping the OTC-painkillers, and you're not seeing an improvement in your ear pain after three or four days, it’s definitely time to go see your doctor for extra help (and to rule out something more serious).

You can also pay a visit to your chiropractor, Dr. Kim says, for a circulation-boosting neck adjustment. She also recommends acupuncture. "Acupuncture helps to break up that stagnation and allows qi (energy) to flow smoothly in the body,” Dr. Kim says. “It also treats the root cause of why someone might have an ear infection based in Chinese medicine diagnostics that are completed by the doctor to figure out a patient's individual unique imbalances.”

So next time your ears are burning (and it's not because someone's talking about you), take heart in knowing that there are a few easy DIY remedies to ease the achy, angry feeling.

Speaking of home remedies, here's what you should know about using essential oils for headaches. And before you go ham on the medicinal herbs, check out these FAQs from experts.

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