Garlic for ear infections? Think again.
© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD
Supermouse wanted to know:
One of my sons recently developed an ear infection, and various people have suggested sticking a clove of garlic in his ear, or garlic ear drops. Of course, we took him to the doctor who prescribed Amoxicillin, which worked quickly and well.
I have a hard time believing that garlic is a natural antibiotic that could be substituted for actual antibiotics. I could believe that garlic has antibiotic properties, but that shoving garlic in your ear (besides just being a bad idea to stick things in one’s ear) would be a poor way to access them.
So…does garlic have an antibiotic properties? Could it be used (in some form, drops into/onto the infection or eating it) to cure an infection?
First: does garlic have antibiotic properties? Can it kill or suppress the growth of bacteria? It makes sense that it would. Vegetables and other things that live and grow have evolved elaborate mechanisms to fight back against anything that wants to kill them. Armadillos have those hard shells, poison dart frogs have poison, and manatees have – well, I don’t know what they have, but considering that their natural predator is the speedboat, what they probably need is some kind of rocket harpoon. Plants, too, have elaborate defenses, like spikes on cactuses, or toxic chemicals that prevent them from getting eaten or infected with parasites and bacteria. Yes, your vegetables are literally loaded with toxins, including antibiotics. Elaborate chemical studies that have confirmed this – multiple substances in garlic do fight bacteria.
But does that mean garlic, placed in the ear, can help fight off an ear infection? Nope, it can’t. It’s a simple matter of anatomy. An “ear infection” – more properly called an “otitis media” – is an infection in the middle ear cavity, behind your eardrum. Unless you poke a garlic clove in far enough to pop the drum and push on through (do NOT do that), garlic placed in the ear cannot get to the site of the infection. Putting garlic in your ear to combat an ear infection is like putting oil next to your car engine for lubrication, or putting food near your mouth to eat it. To fight an infection, an antibiotic needs to be where the bacteria are. And an ear infection is internal, on the other side of your eardrum, where garlic or garlic oil pushed into the ear cannot reach.
But, and here’s the rub: if you put garlic in your child’s ear during an ear infection, will he get better? Probably yes. That’s because most ear infections get better on their own, without any antibiotic at all. You can stick garlic in the ear, or margarine, or a banana, or skinny Aunt Lulu – any of those might seem to work, but none of them will make any difference at all. Still, you’ll see it all over The Internets: I put garlic in an ear, and the infection got better, so yeah. Sorry. That doesn’t prove anything.
Side note: there’s another cause of ear pain, called a swimmer’s ear (or “otitis externa”). This is an infection of the ear canal itself, outside of the eardrum. Hypothetically garlic placed in the ear could reach that surface. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Swimmer’s ears hurt, and hurt bad, and pressing a garlic clove in there may make it hurt more.
Garlic steeped in olive oil sounds like a great spread for crostini, and it might keep vampires away. But it’s not going to help anyone with an ear infection.