Some people use rubbing alcohol to treat various ear conditions, such as swimmers’ ear or middle and inner ear infections.

Rubbing alcohol is also known as isopropyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol. People began using it in the early 1920s as a topical product for massages. It is denatured, meaning it has additional toxic products added to it, so it is not safe for humans to drink.

Rubbing alcohol contains a high level of alcohol, from 60–80%. Due to this, it may be effective at killing bacteria or pathogens in wounds or on surface areas.

Healthcare professionals may use rubbing alcohol as an antiseptic, a postoperative remedy to treat nausea, or a surface disinfectant.

Some people use it as:

In this article, we discuss how people use alcohol to treat common ear problems and infections. We also discuss ways to keep the ears healthy and when it may be necessary to contact a doctor.

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Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an infection in the outer ear canal that runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head. It ranges in severity from mild to severe.

Water that remains in the ear from showering, bathing, or swimming creates a moist environment that helps bacteria grow, leading to swimmer’s ear.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

Rubbing alcohol treatment

Some people may help prevent swimmer’s ear by putting a few drops of rubbing alcohol into each ear after swimming.

Rubbing alcohol may help the ear dry out more quickly, but it will not treat the infection. A doctor will likely prescribe antibiotic ear drops to kill the bacteria and a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation.

Home remedies

The most effective way to deal with swimmer’s ear is to prevent it from occurring. People can help prevent swimmer’s ear by:

  • limiting their time in the water
  • allowing the ears to completely dry before reentering the water
  • adding a solution of equal parts water and vinegar or vinegar, water, and rubbing alcohol to each ear for at least 5 minutes after each swim
  • never picking the ears with any object, including cotton ear swabs

Over-the-counter treatments

Over-the-counter (OTC) drops are available to treat swimmer’s ear. They typically contain isopropyl alcohol and glycerin. These work to dry the ear out faster.

Infections may also occur in the middle and the inner ear.

Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae are the most common bacteria to cause middle ear infections. Cold viruses may also cause middle ear infections.

Inner ear infections often result from an illness, such as a cold or flu, or a middle ear infection that spreads into the inner ear, causing a secondary bacterial infection.

Ear infections may cause symptoms such as:

  • ear pain
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • difficulty hearing
  • ear discharge
  • a feeling of pressure inside the ear
  • itching or irritation in the ear

Rubbing alcohol treatment

There is little scientific evidence about rubbing alcohol easing the symptoms of ear infections, but there is some anecdotal support for this remedy.

Some people treat these infections with a mixture of 1 part rubbing alcohol and 1 part apple cider vinegar to promote drying and prevent bacteria and fungi growth.

People trying this treatment can complete the following steps:

  1. Place 2–3 drops of the solution into the ear using a dropper.
  2. Leave the mixture in the ear for up to 5 minutes.
  3. Drain the ear by tilting the head.
  4. Repeat two to three times daily.

Home remedies

In addition to rubbing alcohol, people could apply a warm washcloth or a heating pad against the inflamed ear. This may assist in any ear drainage and ease pain and itchiness.

Over-the-counter treatments

People may use OTC treatments to ease discomfort, such as:

People can contact a healthcare professional if home remedies do not improve symptoms.

Ear flushing, also known as ear irrigation, is a procedure to remove excess earwax accumulation and foreign materials from the ear.

The ear usually produces the right amount of earwax, with any extra finding its way out gradually as a person chews and moves their jaw.

However, earwax can sometimes clog up, especially if people try to clean their ears with a cotton swab, as this action pushes the wax deeper into the ear canal. This blockage can cause hearing loss, dizziness, and ear pain.

Research advises that ear irrigation is not suitable for people with:

  • an ear tube
  • a foreign body in the ear canal
  • a perforated eardrum
  • an opening into the part of the skull located behind the ear called the mastoid
  • severe swimmer’s ear
  • a history of middle ear disease, ear surgery, or inner ear problems
  • radiation treatment in the head and neck

Rubbing alcohol treatment

Ear flushing solution combines rubbing alcohol, white vinegar, and boric acid to help dry out the ear, kill bacteria and fungi, and flush out wax and debris.

Home remedies

People can use a warm towel against the ear to ease pain. A 2018 research article suggests other home remedies people may use to help remove earwax, such as:

  • baby oil
  • saline
  • almond or mineral oil
  • sodium bicarbonate, 10%
  • glycerin
  • acetic acid, 2.5%

Over-the-counter treatments

People can use earwax softener drops or ear irrigation kits to remove earwax.

People with home irrigation kits may follow these steps:

  1. Wash hands.
  2. Sit upright, placing a towel on the shoulder to collect water draining from the ear.
  3. Insert the syringe up and toward the back of the ear, helping to separate the earwax from the ear.
  4. Lightly press the syringe to allow water to enter the ear. Stop the irrigation if any pain or pressure is present.
  5. Dry the ear with a cloth or insert a few drops of rubbing alcohol into the ear.

If earwax fails to loosen after five attempts, people should stop using the kit and talk with a doctor about other options to remove the wax.

People should always follow the instructions in the irrigation kit and note any contraindications.

People can also use OTC pain medication to ease the discomfort from earwax buildup.

People can use the following strategies to keep their ears healthy:

  • Keep the ears dry.
  • Avoid putting foreign objects in the ear.
  • Protect the ears from irritants by using cotton balls.
  • Use earplugs or a swimming hat over the ears when swimming.
  • Avoid water or shampoo getting into the ears when showering or bathing.
  • Treat conditions that affect the ears, such as eczema or an allergy to hearing aids, if applicable.
  • Use caution after an ear infection or surgery. Talk with a doctor before doing certain activities again, such as swimming.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people with an ear infection contact a doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • a fever of 102.2°F (39°C) or higher
  • pus, discharge, or fluid coming from the ear
  • worsening symptoms
  • symptoms that last for more than 2–3 days
  • hearing loss
  • severe pain
  • other symptoms present, such as:
    • vomiting
    • headaches
    • a stiff neck
    • drowsiness
    • a loss of balance

Rubbing alcohol is a multipurpose chemical that contains a high concentration of alcohol, making it effective in killing bacteria.

Healthcare professionals may use it in hospitals as an antibacterial agent. People may use it at home for various reasons, including ear drops with vinegar to ease ear infection pain and discomfort.

Rubbing alcohol with vinegar drops may also aid in the removal of earwax.

People should contact a healthcare professional if symptoms persist or worsen during or after any home remedy or OTC treatment.