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Pharmacy Care provides information about self-care, that is how to treat minor medical conditions with products available at the pharmacy. Find out how your pharmacist can help you to manage minor conditions yourself.
Ear problems: self-care
Common ear problems include otitis media and ‘glue ear’ (which mostly affect children), ear wax build-up and swimmer’s ear (otitis externa). It is important to have ear problems checked by a health professional to prevent hearing impairment and complications.
Otitis media is inflammation of the middle ear. There is often a build-up of fluid and there may be an infection, which can be caused by bacteria or a virus. Otitis media usually starts from a common cold.
It is a common problem in children, and many will have several bouts of otitis media before they reach seven years old.
Otitis media causes pain and sometimes fever. There may be a discharge from the ear. Signs include crying, ear-pulling and irritability. Antibiotics may be needed, though not always. This depends on the age of the child, whether there is a fever and the duration of the problem.
Glue ear is a type of chronic otitis media that mainly affects children. It is a long-term build-up of thick or sticky fluid in the middle ear, behind the eardrum. This causes hearing impairment, which can delay speech development and make socialising and learning difficult. There is usually no sign of infection (as there is with otitis media). Often the problem will clear up on its own but it is important that the ear is checked by a doctor to see if treatment is needed, especially if there are speech and/or hearing difficulties. Sometimes children will need to have grommets inserted to allow drainage of fluid.
Excess build-up of ear wax can be a problem for some people. The wax can dry out, creating a hard plug which blocks the ear. It may need to be removed with wax-softening ear drops and/or by ear syringing by a doctor or nurse. Excess or hardened ear wax rarely causes discharge or pain but it may cause temporary hearing impairment.
Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation of the ear canal (outer ear). It develops when water gets into the ear and causes the skin there to swell. This makes the area more prone to infection. Otitis externa can also be caused by scratching the ear canal or by pushing objects into it, such as cotton buds. Symptoms include pain and itching, there may be a discharge from the ear, and there may be hearing loss.
See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional
Always see your doctor if any of the following apply:
- if the person is under 12 years old, even if the problem appears to have resolved on its own. It is still important for a doctor to check the ears because of the risk of glue ear
- if your ear is discharging pus or blood
- if you are also suffering from dizziness or ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
- if you have associated nausea or vomiting
- if any neck or head injury occurred before the ear problem started
- if you have developed a problem with hearing
- if there could be something lodged in your ear
- if you have already tried an ear preparation without improvement, or your ear has become very itchy after treatment
- it is always best to ask for advice from a health professional when dealing with ear problems
- cotton buds or other objects should not be used for cleaning ears – attempting to remove ear wax with a cotton bud or other object may make it more impacted, and could damage the ear
- people who suffer from swimmer’s ear should use earplugs to help prevent water entering their ears
- indications that a child’s hearing may be impaired and their ears should be checked by a doctor include not paying attention at school, not responding to instructions or wanting the television volume very loud
- constant low noise, such as lawn mowing, may damage hearing in the long term; if you work in a noisy environment, use ear protectors
- blowing your nose is important but must be done correctly or it can cause damage to your eardrums; do not squeeze your nose when blowing, and do not sniff
Removal of ear wax
e.g. Audiclean, Ear Clear for Ear Wax Removal, Waxsol
e.g. Auralgan Otic, Cerumol
- ear wax treatments help soften or loosen ear wax. Warm ear drops to body temperature before using by holding the container in your hand for two to three minutes
- once ear drops have been put into your ear, lie with the ear containing the solution uppermost for five to 10 minutes. Do not use if your eardrum is perforated or if there is discharge from your ear. Do not use for longer than recommended, as this can lead to irritation. If pain occurs when using these products, see your doctor
e.g. Aquaear, Ear Clear Dry & Clear, Vosol Complete Care for Swimmers Ear
e.g. Auralgan Otic
- ear drops for swimmer’s ear can contain acetic acid, which has antibacterial and antifungal properties
- they usually also contain propylene glycol or isopropyl alcohol, which help to dry your ear
- do not use if your eardrum is perforated or if there is discharge from your ear.
- ear drops for swimmer’s ear can prevent (but do not treat) otitis externa
Ear plugs for prevention
- use to prevent swimmer’s ear or for protection from loud noise
- sometimes a doctor will prescribe an antibiotic for otitis media, but this is not routine
- pain relief may be required; ask your doctor or pharmacist for individualised advice (especially for children) and follow product directions
Availability of medicines
- GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
- PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
- PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.
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Last Reviewed: 06 May 2009