Most parents will deal with ear infections at some point or another in their parenting career. Approximately 2/3 of children will experience at least one ear infection by the age of 3, and 30% to 40% of children have recurrent ear infections lasting for 3 months, with 10% lasting as long as 1 year.
Acute Otitis Media is the term used to describe acute ear infections, either viral or bacterial. Children may complain of pain, may tug at the ear, have a fever and seem generally unwell. Children frequently get ear infections with a cold because the eustachian tube (which drains fluid from the inner ear) lies more horizontally in children making drainage of the inner ear more difficult. This is why ear infections are more common in children than adults and why they are more likely to occur during, or after a viral illness such as a cold.
Ear infections aren’t fun for anyone, and parents often want to avoid antibiotics whenever possible, while stills supporting their child through the process.
How to treat an acute ear infection
An ear infection can’t be diagnosed without looking in the ear. If it looks infected, the recommended protocol is to wait 48-72 hours, as many will clear up without the use of antiobiotcs. This is the ideal timeframe to support the immune response and treat the ear infection naturally. In my practice, I follow up by email in 2-3 days and re-check the child in 5-7 days to make sure the infection has cleared. Please note that children under the age of 6 months, or those with discharge from ear, should be seen by a family doctor.
- Support the immune response with Elderberry or Echinacea. Both of these herbs are safe and effective in children and come in good-tasting syrups. Dose depends on age, so consult an ND for specific recommendations.
- Probiotics may also be helpful. While studies looking specifically at using probiotics to reduce ear infections have been mixed, many do support the use of probiotics in reducing viral illnesses, which can in turn reduce the incidence of developing an ear infection. If your child has had one or more rounds of antibiotics in the past, they may need probiotic therapy for a few months to repopulate the gut flora.
- Use a garlic-infused ear oil. In our office, we use an ear oil blend made by St. Francis. The garlic is very effective in treating the infection and the St. Johns Wort acts as topical anesthetic helping to reduce pain. A study in 2001 found that a similar blend was as effective in reducing pain association with an ear infection. **Never put anything in the ear if there is drainage, or if you suspect the ear drum has ruptured. It is for this reason that I recommend bringing your child in for an exam before treating at home**
- Eustachian tube massage: Give firm but gentle massage all around the jaw and head in the area adjacent to the ear. Massage in a downward direction behind the ear on the neck and apply gentle inward pressure in front of the ear toward the cheek ). This will help to drain fluid in the inner ear and stimulate pressure points in the area.
- Make an onion poultice: Slice half of a medium onion and blanch in hot water for 5-10 mins. Drain and wrap in a tea towel or thin cloth. Cover the ear for 5-10 mins.
- To reduce pain, use heat. A hot water bottle applied over the ear can help to reduce pain, especially when used with an herbal ear oil.
How do I know if my child needs antibiotics?
We all want to avoid the use of antibiotics when possible. But, sometimes they are needed and useful. If your child is under 6 months of age, is very ill and isn’t responding to other measures within 48 hours, a re-check is indicated. Dr. Aviva Romm, MD provides more information on how and when to decide that antibiotics may be needed.
What to do if your child has chronic ear infections
Some children are prone to ear infections and suffer frequently throughout the year, especially during cold and flu season. If this is the case, talk to an ND about how to best to prevent ear infections. Some children require ongoing immune support during cold and flu season, while others greatly benefit from identification of food intolerances. And, as always prevention is the best medicine. To help prevent ear infections in children, breastfeed for at least 6 months, avoid exposure to cigarette smoke, and limit pacifier use beyond 12 months as it has been associated with an increased risk of ear infections in toddlers.