How to prevent ear infection in adults

Katinka Hesselink 2011, 2016

I've had recurring ear infections for a few years now, and weirdly enough doctors don't seem to be able to give much advice on how to prevent it. I do!

However, since there are some hints available online, as well as known reasons WHY ear infections recur in adults, I thought I'd put everything together here.

One of the issues seems to be that medicine is, to some extent, a cultural phenomenon: and sometimes what's recommended in one country equally applies elsewhere... On this page I've combined information from my Dutch doctors with online information from the UK.

Remember: getting ear infections regularly is about having a sensitive skin (in your ear at least) as well as having a narrow ear opening.

If you're reading this you probably have problems with ear infections recurring. The good news is that - if the problem is at all like mine, it can be fixed: I haven't had an ear infection in over a year now. You do have to learn to respect your ears and especially the skin IN your ears though.

Go to your doctor!

The advice on this page is meant to complement the treatment of an ear infection your doctor has prescribed.

Walking around with an ear infection can get you deaf as well as threaten your overall health. This is a serious issue. If it doesn't heal itself within a week you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Again: this advice is meant for AFTER you've got rid of your latest ear infection, to help prevent the next one.

Don't overdo it!

Because my doctor was on holiday, I went to another. He was much more laid back: even an open ear was not reason to start on antibiotics right away. He would only advise if it wasn't healing properly within a week.

My ear was NOT infected at that point and he advised just staying out of my ears as much as possible and only using a diluted acid solution on rare occasions.

Guess what? It worked - that persistent itch in my ears has all but disappeared.

The body can heal itself better than you think.

Things to avoid

There are a number of things you'll be tempted to try when ear infections keep repeating themselves. Unfortunately, most work counter productive.

DO NOT clean your ears with cotton swaps:
Cotton swaps are known to be counter productive as it doesn't actually clean your ear. However it does leave cotton in your ear and hurt the skin.
DO NOT clean the ear with soap solutions or Hydrogen Peroxide solutions.
For the mere removal of ear wax hydrogen peroxide ear drops are a decent method. However, it's not very good for your skin and if you're prone to infections in the ears, you're likely to be hurt, not helped by this method.
DO NOT stick anything into your ears.
Including your fingers.
DO NOT dry your ears by sticking paper in them.
I tried: turns out paper fibers end up in the earwax, probably making it harder on the ears to get rid of it.
The recommended method of drying the ears is using a blow drier, obviously not set too hot, nor blowing too strong. SOFT blowdrying is key. Personally I resort to the very simple method of wrapping a thumb in the cotton of a sleeve and tilting the head sideways, sticking the thumb in the ear. The cotton will absorb a decent amount of water and I figure the skin will not be hurt through this method.

What to do with itches in the ears

  1. DO NOT scratch with your nails
  2. Try not to touch at all
  3. If scratching can't be avoided (I can't avoid it, generally), use a cloth (not paper) handkerchief to protect the skin in your ears from getting hurt.
  4. Diluted Vinegar solution - see further on on this page. I use a 25% solution.
  5. (Olive) oil drop in ear - see further on on this page. I use a drop a week.

Cleaning the ears the right way

The thing is: earwax is actually good for your ears, as long as it's not too much.

Earwax protects the skin by lubricating it (at least if you have the moist kind like I do) and because of it's antibacterial properties. This is rather amazing actually, since the bacteria have had such a long time to get used to ear wax and develop counter measures.

Still, if like me, you combine a sensitive skin with an earwax over production, you may want to take action to prevent ear wax getting out of hand.

The answer? a drop - merely a drop - of olive oil in each ear weekly is all it takes. If you do insist on using non-oil based methods, follow them up with olive oil right after.

Why olive oil? Because it has anti-bacterial properties of it's own. Vegetable oils in general will help protect the skin as well.

The reason cleaning the ears of ear wax is rather simple: it's because air pollution makes the earwax more solid, so that earwax buildup is more common now than it used to be. Olive oil should do the trick of softening it up so that the ears can clean themselves again.

Really cleaning the ears: leave it to the doctor

The above only works as maintenance.

However, sometimes you'll find that your ears start hurting and the reason is that the buildup of wax is such that it needs to be cleaned out. Personally I leave this to the professionals. Any sign of trouble in my ears has me going to the doctor. Sometimes they'll tell me it's earwax buildup. However, I've gone once to have my ears cleaned only to hear that I had already pierced my eardrums with an ear infection.

Since I can't look into my ears any sign of trouble is reason for a professional to look at them.

Keeping out water or drying the ears

Water is one of the problems in the inner ear. Earwax again helps protect the ear from water.

However that may not be enough. In the shower experts recommend plugging the ears with cotton wool+ Vaseline when taking a shower. Research shows this is better than earplugs as well as more comfortable. The vaseline probably has a softening effect on the skin even while it keeps water out. source.

I tried making those Colton wool plugs with Vaseline and I have to say it is easy to get them wrong and get left over Vaseline in the ear.

What's more: my doctor found left over threads from the cotton wool in my ears on my last checkup and told me that was likely irritating my ear and not helping the healing process. In short: do NOT use cotton wool + vaseline ear plugs.

Since water alone doesn't seem to trigger an ear infection for me, I limit myself to drying them a bit after taking a shower, using the 'thumb in sleeve' method. As I wrote above this method simply uses a thumb covered in a sleeve, or something else cotton, and putting the thumb in the ear tilting the head so that as much of the water in the ear is absorbed.

Take care not to scratch. My ear doctor was very clear that scratching leads to more minuscule wounds in the skin, which leads to more scratching... And each of those wounds is a potential starting point for an infection.

A doctor approved method of drying the ear, though I'm sure it can easily be overdone too, is softly blowdrying the ear. Make sure the dryer isn't set to too hot a temperature: one might scorch the skin, or dry it out.

Symptoms of an ear infection in adults

Unfortunately ear infections can happen without too much trouble. I've had middle ear infection with only mild irritation in the ear. The only other symptom was a general feeling of not being well. Which could as easily have been a cold.

So the below is merely a list of symptoms that COULD occur. If any occur, go to a doctor to be sure. Better safe than sorry.

DON'T do any of this if you have ear trouble

Don't put vinegar or oil in your ear if there is any chance you might have an ear infection. It will make the problem worse, not better.
So if you have any of the symptoms of an ear infection make a doctor look at it first to diagnose the problem. Whether it's earwax buildup or any type of infection: first have it treated and healed and only when the doctor pronounces you healthy can you start trying out the oil or vinegar methods on this page safely.

Don't Smoke

This ought to be self evident: smoking is bad for our health, specifically the air ways in our body, including the nose itself.

Since ear infections imply trouble in the Eustace trunk, which is an airway, making sure you don't smoke and don't have people smoke around you is a must.

Nasal cleansing

The practice of rinsing the nose with a saline solution is recommended by doctors. There are pre-made solutions available as well as kits.

Yoga Neti Pit for cleansing the nasal passages

A Rhino horn or Neti Pot is a simple system of nasal irrigation that will help keep those nasal passages as clean as you can manage personally. The handle shown allows for measuring just the right amount of salt (yes, simple kitchen salt is fine) to create a skin-friendly saline solution.

Nasal spray

The advantage of a simple salt water nasal spray is that it's easier to carry along. Like the previous option it will help the nose clean itself. 

Acetic acid: aka vinegar

Only recommended for occasional use

I checked online in both English and Dutch. There was a slight difference in the recommended solution.

Dutch doctors recommend a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and medicinal alcohol. English doctors recommend a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water. The advantage of the latter recipe is obviously that you can more easily make it at home. Use the kind of vinegar that you'd also put on a salad, not the kind meant for the sink.

There is a temptation to use this stuff a LOT. However, the acid doesn't just kill germs, it also potentially hurts the skin. In fact, medicinal advice is to never use it for longer than 7 days in a row.

Still, as a preventative measure after swimming it's probably not a bad idea. The dilution using alcohol has the advantage of drying faster.

Also, when your ear starts itching again this is a measure you can take without going to your doctor immediately.

If the solution hurts your ears, go to the doctor: you probably need something stronger.

On the other hand, if it doesn't - you may want to try an even more diluted solution. I found that 50-50 is too strong for my skin: it doesn't recover well from that.

If I use a 25% solution of vinegar it decreases the itching without it returning within a few hours.

Glass bottle with eye dropper pipette.Which translates into:

Main point

Donít ignore an ear problem. It wonít improve without proper treatment and the longer an ear problem is neglected, the longer it may take to treat.

About hygiene

To avoid cross infection the following precautions will help you stay on the safe side.

Every time you have had an ear infection, either get NEW vials for cleaning the ears, or clean them thoroughly before reusing

The same goes for your acid solution.

Cleaning your vials

Assuming you make your own oil solutions and have one of those vials with a pipette, either get a new one each time, or clean them.

Cleaning your oil vial is easy compared to cleaning the pipette. In each case what matters is rinse and repeat.

That is:

  1. set the vials and pipettes to soak in an ordinary dishwashing solution: water plus dishwashing fluid. Make sure all the air is out of the pipettes.
  2. An hour or so later, get rid of the soap water and repeat: new water, new soap. Make sure before putting them in the soap water is out of the vials and pipettes as much as possible
  3. Then - again - fill the pipettes with the soapy solution, getting rid of the air inside.
  4. Repeat a third time.

This should get rid of bacteria. Vegetable oils and vinegar are both mildly anti-septic, so that helps too.

Now fill the vials with your preferred vegetable oil. Whether it's olive oil, or garlic oil. I prefer adding a drop (not more than a drop) of peppermint oil to olive oil.

As long as you strugle with this, have a vial for each ear separately, to prevent cross-infection.

Confession time

I've actually made most of the mistakes mentioned on this page

One of the reasons I decided to make this page is because in our anxiousness to avoid an ear infection, it is very easy to actually make one more likely.

Cleaning the ear for instance: I did that using over the counter stuff, actually recommended by my doctor, for at least a week.. Till it became clear that they weren't actually getting cleaner. Back to the doctor: another running ear infection. Not that he'd recommended using that stuff several days in a row: I thought of that myself.

In fact, looking back, I think at least three of my ear infections were due to me trying to clean my ears. That one time I was clearly over doing it, at the others it was using that same stuff only once.

You can count on me not trying to clean my ears any more except using oil.

I wrote this page in 2011. I'm republishing it in 2016. I have been ear-infection free for years now! I still use drops of oil in my ears occasionally and I don't put anything in my ear that doesn't belong there. That's it.
I broke the cycle, you can too!

a reader says:

Ear aches can be so painful. My husband is a physician and he is always telling us not to stick anything in our ears especially cue tips.

Main sources - all gone

Unfortunately, all my sources for this article are now gone from the internet because 'Deafness Research UK has merged with Action on Hearing Loss' and they have completely revamped their combined website.