If you’re struggling with a distracting ringing in your ears, you may be tempted to reach for any remedy to ease the symptoms. But before you grab a bottle of ear drops to treat tinnitus, make sure you educate yourself on how to use them correctly and weigh the potential effectiveness against the risks.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus refers to the perception of a phantom noise, even though there is no external source. Most people hear ringing, hissing, or buzzing sounds in one or both ears. Others can’t pinpoint the noise and perceive tinnitus somewhere in their head. There are many tinnitus symptoms and causes, and it’s often associated with loud noise exposure or age-related hearing loss.
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
– Steve D.
Take the Tinnitus Quiz to learn which Treble Health solution is right for you. Join Steve and thousands more who have found lasting tinnitus relief.
Tinnitus is very common – almost everyone perceives brief mild tinnitus at some point, and as many as 15-20% of the adult population experiences persistent tinnitus symptoms. Some cases of chronic tinnitus can become bothersome, leading to trouble sleeping, worsening mental health, and other stressful symptoms.
Common Causes of Tinnitus
Scientists believe that in most individuals, tinnitus is the result of changes that occur inside the organ of hearing, called the cochlea. Those changes, such as the loss of the tiny hair cells that play a role in sound perception, result in auditory brain overcompensation. In other words, in the absence of complete sound input, your brain creates sounds to fill in the auditory gaps.
Most often, tinnitus is a symptom of benign changes in the ears, such as hearing loss due to age-related changes or loud noise exposure. Other times it may be linked to an underlying health condition that may need treatment, such as hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease (to name a few). Most of these conditions aren’t treatable with ear drops.
Some common causes of tinnitus include:
- Cochlear hair cell loss within the inner ear due to the natural aging process of the hearing organ, the Cochlea. The tiny hairs in the cochlea pick up auditory cues, and over time, they tend to become damaged. This loss of information from the cochlear hair cells leads to reduced sound transmission along the auditory nerve to the brain, which ultimately results in hearing loss.
- Exposure to loud noises. Tinnitus can be triggered by long-term noise exposure (like working around heavy machinery) or a single loud sound (like an explosion). Loud noise can cause damage to the cochlear hair cells, and if loud enough, to the auditory processing centers of the brain as well (this is sometimes the case with blast exposures which cause Traumatic Brain Injury).
- Blockage. Common ear obstructions like earwax blockage, sinus pressure, or allergies can result in a temporary hearing loss and tinnitus.
- Ear infection. A middle ear infection will often cause temporary hearing loss that results in tinnitus. Outer ear infections, such as swimmer’s ear, may or may not cause these kinds of symptoms.
- Acoustic neuroma. This type of benign tumor develops on the auditory nerve, and may be a symptom of unilateral (in one ear only) tinnitus in some patients.
- Trauma to the head or neck. Any kind of head injury may result in changes to your hearing and cause tinnitus.
- Conditions outside of the auditory system. Not all causes of tinnitus are related to your ears or hearing perception. For example, pulsatile tinnitus is often related to blood flow disturbances within the carotid or jugular arteries in the neck.
What Are Ear Drops?
Ear drops are a liquid medication that are applied directly to your ear canal. Ear drops are typically used as an antibiotic, antifungal, or pain reliever and can be available over the counter (OTC) or by prescription from your doctor.
If prescribed, most ear drops fall into a class of antibiotics that are approved to treat bacterial ear infections. These fluoroquinolone antibiotics include ciprofloxacin (cipro) and other drugs that primarily treat outer and middle ear infections. Fluocinolone acetonide oil drops can also be prescribed for outer ear eczema, and drops like antipyrine and benzocaine otic drops can be used to relieve swelling and ear pain.
It’s important to note that there are no medications (ear drops included) specifically intended to relieve symptoms of tinnitus. Instead, these medications aim to treat the potential underlying cause of the tinnitus such as an ear infection, ear pain, ear drainage or other abnormality. This is an important distinction to make as you begin looking for relief from your tinnitus symptoms. It is also important to mention that ear drops are only applied to the outer ear canal and can only provide relief of symptoms to the eardrum. Because the eardrum (also known as the tympanic membrane) is impermeable to most molecules, ear drops are not able to pass through the eardrum to actively treat a middle ear infection or reach the inner ear to provide any type of alleviation of sensorineural (permanent hearing loss) and or tinnitus associated with this condition.
Homeopathic vs FDA Approved Ear Drops
When a physician prescribes a prescription ear drop, you can rest assured that the prescribed ear drops have been evaluated, studied and are under constant regulation of standards to ensure efficacy and safety by the FDA. However, many homeopathic ear drops are available over-the-counter on the shelves of your local drugstore. As a consumer, use your best judgment with these products as they are not required to have FDA approval. They often lack the rigor of testing to prove efficacy and lack the manufacturing standards of prescription ear drops. These products can make baseless claims on their packaging without anyone telling them they can’t. This can make it very difficult as a consumer to know which products to choose when looking for relief of an ailment regarding the ear. When in doubt, ask the pharmacist or seek medical advice from your medical doctor.
There are a number of popular products that the FDA has not approved for use to treat any ear conditions. These products include Similasan Earache Relief and Ring Relief Ear Drops, which both contain a form of toxic mercury, as well as Similasan Ear Ringing Remedy Drops, which contains quinine sulfate that can be ototoxic (damaging to the ear) in high doses.
Should You Try Treating Tinnitus With Ear Drops?
The short answer is no. There is no evidence to support ear drops, prescription or OTC, as a valuable treatment option for the majority of those who suffer from tinnitus.
This is because 90% of tinnitus cases result from sensorineural hearing loss, which is permanent damage to the inner hair cells within the cochlea. As of this time with current medical science there is no cure or reversing technology for this type of inner ear damage. Therefore, ear drop treatments will have no efficacy for relief on this hearing damage nor the resulting tinnitus symptom. (We will talk about viable treatment options for tinnitus below!)
Just because ear drops may not work for the majority of tinnitus sufferers does not mean that they may not work for a small subset of those who suffer from tinnitus. Especially those whose tinnitus is a result of earwax blockage or middle ear infection.
However, it is important to note that, as with beginning any new medication, you should seek professional medical advice before beginning a new medicine. This is because ear drops are applied directly to the ear canal via a dropper and for those with perforated eardrums, those who have weakened immune systems, or those who might have allergies to listed ingredients, it is very important that you not use these products.
Ear Drops For Earwax Buildup
While the science may be generally lacking to support ear drop use for tinnitus relief, some tinnitus sufferers do report relief from OTC ear drops, especially those with earwax and ear infections. Earwax buildup can reduce sound as it travels through the ear canal to the middle and inner ears, resulting in temporary hearing loss and tinnitus. That’s where OTC ear drops that contain carbamide peroxide (in brands like Debrox and Murine) are especially useful. Oil-based ear drops – including just a small amount of mineral oil – are effective in moistening and loosening wax so it can work its way out of the ear canal or ease earwax removal by a specialist. To avoid accidental injury, earwax removal should always be done by an otolaryngologist or an audiologist.
Ear Drops For Ear Infections
Ear infections, whether occurring in the outer or middle ear, can also affect how sound travels through the ear for processing, resulting in temporary hearing loss. This temporary hearing loss can result in temporary tinnitus until symptoms from the ear infection resolve as well.
There are two main types of ear infection:
- Otitis Media
- In this type of infection, there is a build up of fluid (infected or not) in the middle ear space behind the eardrum. This is most often caused by a virus or bacterial infection. These are among the most common complaints for children, as most children will have had at least one of these infections before the age of four.
- Otitis Externa/Swimmer’s ear
- Bacterial or fungal growth in the external auditory canal is the source of the condition known as swimmer’s ear. In swimmer’s ear, the cause is typically bacterial, but can also be fungal or related to a virus. Unlike other conditions, which can be caused by damage to the tiny bones in the ear or precipitated by persistent exposure to loud noises, swimmer’s ear is largely a result of fluid problems, such as excess moisture or moisture exposure, and is typically treated with anti-inflammatory interventions.
Both of these conditions are often prescribed ear drops as part of a treatment plan to clear up infection and provide pain relief. Once the infection and swelling has cleared up, any tinnitus that was experienced during the active infectious period is typically resolved as well.
Other Tinnitus Treatment Options
If you are of the majority of tinnitus sufferers who suspect chronic tinnitus due to permanent hearing damage and are looking for ways to relieve your tinnitus, there are, there are quite a few effective strategies and alternative therapies you can use to treat your tinnitus. Most chronic cases of tinnitus can be effectively treated with the support of an experienced clinician or audiologist.
At Treble Health, we offer a treatment program that utilizes a combination of sound therapy treatment and tinnitus coaching with our clinicians, mixed with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) support. Many people find tinnitus relief with tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT).
Bottom Line: Should You Try Ear Drops for Tinnitus?
When used as prescribed for pain relief, ear drops can be a very effective treatment. As you explore options to lower the volume of the ringing in the ears, just know that the science currently doesn’t support the use of OTC drops for tinnitus relief unless your condition is specifically caused by wax accumulation, or active ear infection. Even prescription ear drops – which should always be used as directed by a doctor – aren’t great at addressing tinnitus except when there’s an underlying medical condition at play.
Instead, you may be better served working with your doctor or hearing specialist on other evidence-based treatment options to ease tinnitus. Treble Health offers evidence-based treatment for tinnitus, such as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, masking devices, hearing aids, sound enrichment, and other techniques so you can create a treatment plan that works for you. Take our short quiz to find out if you’re a candidate.