VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Claim that garlic is remedy for ear infections, headache NEEDS CONTEXT

Netizens on Facebook (FB) are sharing a year-old post by the page Universal TRUTH, which claims that placing a clean clove of garlic in the ear like “earplugs” would quickly and effectively get rid of ear pain, ear infections, and headaches.

Philip Fullante, an attending otorhinolaryngologist (or ear, nose and throat expert) at the Philippine General Hospital, told VERA Files Fact Check that there have indeed been extensive research on the antimicrobial properties of garlic and its extracts, and that it “certainly can be used by anyone as a first-aid remedy at home.”

But he added that putting a whole garlic clove inside one’s ear may not be the best thing to do.

“I won’t really recommend putting any solid object inside the ear canal. The clove of garlic might be small enough to get stuck inside the canal,” Fullante, a clinical associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, said in an email.

“Maybe crushing the clove of garlic to extract the oils first, and then gently apply the oil extract to the ear canal opening is a better and safer way.”

The Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) told VERA Files Fact Check that while there are preclinical studies testing the garlic’s antimicrobial properties, there is “not enough evidence” to validate its effectiveness in treating ear pain, ear infections, and headache.

Preclinical studies are laboratory researches done before a drug is tested on people. PITAHC is an attached agency of the Health Department that formulates guidelines on alternative and traditional treatments.

The institute acknowledged that there are anecdotal records of indigenous communities using the plant to relieve headaches by applying it as a poultice, but noted that a garlic poultice might cause a “minor burning sensation” to a person’s skin.

The country’s database on traditional health practices shows over a hundred entries on garlic being used in various regions as remedy to headaches and a variety of illnesses (like animal and insect bites, toothache, stomachache, boil, skin diseases, fever, hypertension, rheumatism, asthma, and mental stress). But there is no record of it being used as a cure for ear infections.

More, the anecdotal uses of garlic to treat ailments require that it be pounded, cut, crushed, cooked, or eaten raw. Simply putting a whole garlic clove on or inside an aching body part is not among the reported ways to utilize the herb as cure.

Existing in vivo studies supporting the garlic’s potential in treating ear infections also involved the plant being extracted first and then turned into an oil or ear drop solution, before being administered to participants of the research.

However, otolaryngologist Anh Nguyen-Huynh of the Cleveland Clinic cautioned against using oil solutions for ear infections. He said if the infection was in the middle part of the ear, the oil “won’t get to the source of the problem.”

Instead, Nguyen-Huynh recommends the use of hot or cold compress and over-the-counter pain relievers, as well as a change in one’s sleeping position as immediate remedy to ear pain.

VERA Files found only one source, a March 2019 post in American health information website Healthline, which advises the use of a whole clove of garlic to ease earache. However, it states the garlic needs to be peeled, one of its tips cut off, then wrapped in a piece of gauze, before it could be placed in the ear in a way that it will not slip inside one’s ear canal.

Healthline also warned against the “risk of skin irritation and chemical burns” when applying garlic or its extracts on the skin, and does not recommend using it as treatment for a ruptured eardrum.

Universal TRUTH’s FB post has received over 10,000 reactions, 4,600 comments, and 28,000 shares from netizens. A copy of the post has been on the Web as early as July 2019, published on Instagram by an account that promotes alternative and holistic health care.

Social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle shows there are at least 139 posts published in FB pages and public groups from September 2019 to March 2021, bearing the same post. These have collectively gotten nearly 87,000 interactions from netizens. Universal TRUTH was created in April 2018.

(Editor’s Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)