Ear Infection Prevalence in Children--an Opinion
The prevalence of middle ear infections (otitis media) increased significantly among children in the United States between 1988 and 1994, according to a new report in Pediatrics (2003;112:514–20). This suggests that the current approach to preventing middle ear infections is not adequate and that underlying causes of these infections are not being appropriately addressed.
Otitis media is the most common reason children of pre-school age visit their healthcare providers, accounting for more than 24 million visits in the United States each year. Treatment has historically used antibiotics; however, there has been substantial controversy as to the efficacy of antibiotics for otitis media. Many middle ear infections are either viral or allergic in origin, and antibiotics do not help with these types of infection. Inappropriate treatment with antibiotics has led to multi-drug resistance of many bacteria, making infections more difficult to treat when the antibiotics are needed. Some physicians feel pressure from parents to give a child an antibiotic even when it is not necessary, which in turn may cause more problems for the child in the future.
This new report shows that the prevalence of otitis media increased by more than 4% during two study periods, from 1988 to 1991 and from 1991 to 1994. The number of children with ear infections under the age of 12 months went up by more than 10% and recurrent ear infections in all children increased by more than 15%. This corresponds to 561,000 and 720,000 more children having early-onset and recurrent ear infections, respectively. Some scientists believe that more children entering daycare or early breastfeeding termination account for this increase, but these factors did not increase during the same time period. However, a significant increase in asthma and allergies has been observed in children who are prone to ear infections. Some studies suggest allergies may predispose children to developing otitis media.
Allergies create an accumulation of fluid in various compartments of the body, including the middle ear, where the fluid accumulation may provide a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. These organisms cannot grow well without the fluid, so eliminating causes of fluid build-up may reduce the frequency of ear infections.
Some studies suggest food allergies may contribute to the development of otitis media. One study showed that more than half of the children with recurrent otitis media had food allergies and that 86% of the allergic children had significant reductions in the frequency of otitis media by eliminating the offending food. Another study showed that children allergic to cow’s milk were twice as likely to have recurrent ear infections as those who were not allergic to milk. The author of this article and other physicians have observed that other foods, such as wheat, corn, eggs, soy, and sugar, may also predispose a child to ear infections and that eliminating the foods from the diet reduces the frequency of these infections. Other environmental allergens, including mold, pollen, dust, animal dander, and various pollutants may also promote the development of ear infections.
While no natural treatment has been shown to be a cure for otitis media, some treatments do appear to provide symptomatic relief. Applying drops of oil with garlic and mullein into the affected ear can help reduce the pain associated with otitis media; pre-made solutions are available. Garlic is a natural antibiotic and mullein is an herb that soothes the irritated membrane. Parents must be sure the eardrum is not perforated before using this treatment.
Nutrients that help boost the immune system may also be useful, especially when taken at the initial onset of symptoms. Vitamin C and zinc can help increase immune function and reduce the duration of the infection. Echinacea may also be beneficial, but studies show it is most useful in the first few days of infection and should not be taken long-term, since it has not been shown to prevent infection. For specific dose information, consult a healthcare provider.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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