Key points about ear drops

  • Ear drops are used when medicine needs to work directly in the ear.
  • It's important to use the correct technique when using ear drops to get the most benefit.
  • Find out how to use ear drops properly and safely.
HN 1207 pharmacist showing child and caregiver how to instil ear drops 960x690
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Ear drops are liquid medicine, to be put into the ear. They're used if medicine needs to work directly in the ear, for the following reasons:

To soften and remove ear wax

Our ear canals produce ear wax, which lines the ear canal and keeps them clean. Ear wax traps dust and other debris, and gradually works its way to the entrance of your ear canal, where it escapes. If the wax builds up it can cause discomfort, pain and hearing loss.

  • Ear wax can be softened using warm olive oil ear drops or almond oil ear drops.
  • Drops for softening ear wax can be bought from your pharmacy, eg, Waxsol® or Cerumol®.

Ear drops aren't suitable for everyone and shouldn't be used if you have an inflamed or perforated eardrum (a hole or tear in your eardrum). Speak to your pharmacist about the best product for you. Read more earwax build-up and removal.

To treat ear infections, inflammation or eczema

Some ear drops contain anti-infectives and anti-inflammatories to treat ear infections, inflammation or eczema in the ears. The active ingredients can contain 1 or a combination of antibiotics, antifungals and corticosteroids. These ear drops are available only on prescription from your doctor or nurse prescriber.

Read more about ear infection or inflammation of the outer ear.

For treatment of mild ear infection and discomfort of the outer ear – usually caused by water in the ear, ear drops (eg, Vosol®) can be bought from your pharmacy. 

It's important to use the correct technique to get the most benefit from your ear drops. Ask your healthcare provider to show you.

A guide to using ear drops

  • Gently shake the container.
  • Warm the ear drops by holding the container in your hand for a few minutes. This is especially important if the ear drops have been stored in the fridge but don't warm the ear drops under hot water. If the medicine is too cold or hot it may hurt your ear.  
  • Lie on your side or tilt your head to the side with the affected ear facing up.
  • Gently pull your earlobe to straighten the ear canal.
  • Put the correct number of drops in your ear. Gently massage the front of the ear.
  • Stay on your side for a few minutes.
  • If both ears are being treated, turn over and repeat after 5 minutes.

Video: How to use ear drops properly

(Apotex Inc., Canada, 2015)

Applying ear drops in babies and some children can be tricky, because they find it difficult to keep still. You may need help from another adult.

Guide for using ear drops in children

  • Reassure your child that this may feel a bit uncomfortable but it won't hurt.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • For babies or small children, you can wrap them up in a blanket to keep them still.
  • It's best if your child is lying down on their side with their head on a pillow, or have your child tilt their head to one side.
  • Place the tip of the dropper gently just inside the ear hole. Gently squeeze the dropper into the ear to give the correct number of drops.
  • Don't let the tip of the dropper touch the ear.
  • Ask your child to lie on their side or keep their head tilted for a minute.
  • If your child needs the drops in both ears, repeat in the other ear.
  • Wipe the dropper with a clear tissue after each use and replace the cap.
  • Wash your hands again.

Read more about how to give ear drops to children(external link).

Video: How to give ear drops

(Medicines for Children, UK, 2016)

  • You don't need to store your ear drops in the fridge unless it says to on the label.
  • Take care not to let the dropper tip of the container touch anything, including your ear.
  • Don't try to clean inside your ear with cotton buds, they can damage and irritate the inflamed skin, and make things worse. Wipe the outside of your ear with a clean cloth or tissue if any discharge appears or medicine comes out.
  • Ear drops are usually used for a short time only. Use them as directed on the label. Check with your healthcare provider how long to use them for.
  • Ask your pharmacist about the expiration date and also check the expiration date on the label. If the drops have expired, throw them away. Don’t use expired ear drops, as they can be contaminated and cause infection.  
  • Locarcorten-Vioform ® and Locorten-Vioform ® ear drops can stain skin and clothing. Use an old pillowcase or towel under your ear when putting your ear drops in.
  • Ear drops may cause mild stinging, irritation and discomfort.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if:
    • you experience severe pain and discomfort
    • your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse
    • you develop persistent ringing in your ears, hearing loss or loss of balance.

The following link provides further information on how to apply ear drops. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

How to use ear drops properly - pdf brochure(external link), audio(external link). Safe Medication, US
Ear drops(external link) Canterbury District Health Board, NZ, 2020


Drugs acting on the ear(external link) NZ Formulary, 2024

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Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Stephanie Yee, Pharmacist, Auckland

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