Kids and Ear Infections
Kids and ear infections (Otitis media) go hand in hand, right? If you’re a mom, you probably feel this this is true.
- About 90% of children have otitis media at some time before school age.
- More than 60% of kids have it before 2 years old.
- 30% to 40% of children have recurrent ear infections lasting for 3 months, with 10% lasting as long as 1 year.
- Kids’ ear infections are the most reason that children land in the doctor’s office.
So your kiddo has probably had at least one. Likely more. And you’ve probably been told that s/he needs antibiotics at least once.
I know many of you have struggled with whether to give those antibiotics – ‘cause so many of you natural mommas contact me for information on alternatives. And I’m not gonna’ disappoint!
Part 1 of this article will teach you how to 100% prevent Otitis media in your kids; Part 2 (stay tuned) will teach you how to treat ear infections naturally whenever possible – which is most of the time!
In spite of the stats, ear infections do not have to be an inevitable fact of childhood.
And when they do occur, antibiotics are generally unnecessary.
Increasing Ear Infection Rates and Escalating Antibiotic Use
Rates of Otitis media have been on the rise in the past decade, concurrent with increases in childhood allergies and asthma. Likely this is due to a combination of factors including environmental exposures, poor nutrition, and stress, among others. With this, there has been an estimated 45% rise in antibiotic prescribing for ear infections, at least half of which, if not more, is completely unnecessary according to several authoritative medical reviews, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At this point you might be asking – so what’s the big deal if my kid gets a lot of ear infections? And what’s the problem with antibiotics, anyway.
The problem is 3-fold:
- Recurrent ear infections mean that the immune system is not adequately ramping up to fight infection – so they are telling you that your child needs more nutritional support for optimal immunity. Additionally, they are painful, can lead to scarring of the eardrum, and cause missed days of school and work for your family. In fact, ear infections occur at a national annual price tag of about $4 billion!
- Even a single course of antibiotics for ear infections in young children increases the risk of immediate side-effects, as well as the longer-term risks of developing irritable bowel disease (this includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), asthma, and possibly even obesity later in life, according to recent data.
- Antibiotic resistance has become a global health crisis. In overusing antibiotics for the unnecessary treatment of common illnesses, including ear infections, we have unwittingly made ourselves life threateningly susceptible to infections with bugs that the antibiotics will no longer kill. New antibiotics don’t get discovered in the lab everyday so we are becoming increasingly limited in our ability to fight serious infections.
Preventing Ear Infections
Here are 6 sure fire tips for preventing ear infections in your kids – but you’ve got to really do them for them to work!
(Of note, of my 4 now grown kids, only one ever had an ear infection. Once. We did not use antibiotics. We immediately cut soy milk out of her diet – she was my only kid who ever drank something other than water as a beverage – and she never got another.)
1. Nip colds in the bud: Ear infections are generally preceded by cold symptoms – especially runny noses. Congestion in the nose finds its way back into the eustachian canals where it becomes an infection breeding ground. And cold viruses and bacteria also just migrate back there because the back of the throat, sinuses, and eustachian tubes are all interconnected. So if your child starts to develop a cold, especially if he or she is prone to ear infections, head it off at the pass with good nutrition, herbs, and supplements. First off, take all juice, wheat, dairy, and sugar out of the diet and keep it out for at least a few days beyond the end of all cold symptoms. Use herbs to bolster immunity and fight infection. My favorite kid-friendly natural cold remedies are Garlic Lemon Honey Tea (use maple syrup for babies under 1-year old), Elderberry Syrup and Echinacea Blend, age appropriate doses of zinc and vitamin D, and hot steams using Thyme essential oil. (You’ll find the Recipes at the bottom of this blog.)
2. Breastfeed: Breastfed babies are at least half as likely as their formula-fed cohorts to get ear infections. So please breastfeed. Breastfeeding through at least age 1 year old also allows you to avoid the problem of deciding what beverage to give your baby! Whether you breastfeed or give your child a bottle, keep her head at a 45 degree upright angle while feeding rather than nursing or feeding her on her side. This prevents milk from getting from the back of the throat up into the immature eustachian tubes where it can be a site for infection. This is more of a risk with cow milk and formula feeding. As an aside, pacifier use increases ear infection risk – for this and other reasons, I generally recommend avoiding their use.
3. Avoid juice and dairy: Kids who drink a lot of juice and dairy products get more ear infections. They encourage the production of a lot of mucus in the upper respiratory system, while the sugar in them depresses immune function. This can lead to congestion in the chest and ears, a ripe situation for an ear infection, and a decreased ability to fight it off. Kids should not drink juice – ever – as a regular part of the diet. Regular is anything more than a cup as a treat maybe once every few months. Seriously. Milk – and dairy in general – is a problem, too, though harder to get away from with toddlers.
Water is the best beverage for kids. No soda. EVER.
4. Use Nutrition to Bolster Immunity: A healthy, optimally functioning immune system requires nutritional building blocks including protein, good quality fats, and plenty of important vitamins and minerals. I know feeding kids well – and getting them to eat well – are two totally different things! Kids can be picky and kids also get more than just what we give them – at school, friend’s homes, birthday parties, etc. We’ve got to just do our best to provide them with healthy options, and some simple basic supplements to make up for what might be missing.
Provide a good quality protein at each meal – meat or vegetarian – and good quality fats including olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil, and avocado at least twice daily. Nuts and seeds are also protein-rich and contain high quality fats. Vegetables should be served at least twice daily, and can be part of a snack in the form of raw veggie sticks, for example, and leafy greens including kale, collards, and broccoli are nutritional treasure troves. Fruits can be part of the meal or snack. I tend to recommend fruits in season, avoiding tropical fruits in the cold weather months, and being more liberal in the summer.
Supplements can include a kid’s multivitamin and mineral, added zinc and vitamin D if not adequate in the general supplement, and a good quality fish oil product. I use Nordic Naturals for the latter, and am a fan of Rainbow Light products, though there are many high quality supplements.
Consider a probiotic as well, particularly if your child has received antibiotics in the past. Completely avoid processed and “junk” foods, and even avoid heavily processed natural foods like soy foods that imitate common dairy and meat foods. Also, keep sweets to a minimum, even natural ones.
5. Don’t smoke and minimize wood smoke exposure: Exposure to tobacco smoke, and even the residue of tobacco smoke on a caregiver’s clothes, dramatically increases the risk of your child getting ear infections. Ditto on using wood stoves for heat – it’s an affordable and cozy way to warm your house – but wood smoke exposure significantly increases the rates of upper respiratory infection in kids, including ear infections.
6. Address stress: Even little kids can experience stress, and school-aged children are commonly exposed whether from social pressures, bullying, work pressures, or home life stressors. Sleep is an important part of managing stress and keeping the immune system healthy.
Teaching your child to manage stress from a young age is as important as tying shoelaces and more relevant than knowing when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Stress has a direct impact on the immune system. In fact, the nervous and immune systems are interconnected. Teaching your child a simple technique such as saying “I am” on an long inhale and “at peace” on a long exhale, repeated 5 times before sleep, or during any stressful time, can be a lifelong gift. When there is more stress going on, and recurrent infection, counseling can be helpful.
Following the above tips will not only help to prevent ear infections, but will set the stage for your child’s lifelong immune wellness!
Garlic Lemonade: Finely mince 2 cloves of fresh garlic and place them in a 1-quart mason jar. Fill the jar with boiling water and cover for 30 minutes. Strain out the garlic, and to the liquid add the juice of 1 whole lemon. Sweeten to taste with honey. Give warm, and offer as much as the child can drink. For babies under 1, use maple syrup instead of honey. Do not give to babies under 6 months old.
Elderberry-Echinacea Syrup: Combine equal parts of elderberry syrup and echinacea glycerite (available at Whole Foods or online from companies including Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, and Planetary Formulas). Give 1/2 tsp – 1 tsp daily for children under 1 year old, and up to 1 tbs daily for kids over 7 yo, with a dose somewhere in between for kids 1-7 years old.
Herbal Steams: Place 7 drops of thyme essential oil onto a washcloth. Toss this under the stream of very hot water in the bathroom shower. Close the bathroom door and let the bathroom fill up with hot steam. Take your little one in there for about 5 minutes – not in the shower, just in the steamy bathroom. Repeat twice daily.
Hersch A, et al. 2011, Antibiotic Prescribing in Ambulatory Pediatrics in the United States Pediatrics 128:6.
Kummeling, I et al. 2007, Early Life Exposure to Antibiotics and the Subsequent Development of Eczema, Wheeze, and Allergic Sensitization in the First 2 Years of Life: The KOALA Birth Cohort Study. Pediatrics 119: e225.
McCormick, David P, et al. 2005, Nonsevere Acute Otitis Media: A Clinical Trial Comparing Outcomes of Watchful Waiting Versus Immediate Antibiotic Treatment. Pediatrics 115:1455–1465.
Plasschaert Astrid I.O. 2006, Trends in Doctor Consultations,Antibiotic Prescription, and Specialist Referrals for Otitis Media in Children: 1995–2003 Pediatrics 117:1879.
Work Group on Breastfeeding 1997, Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Pediatrics 100;1035 DOI: 10.1542/peds.100.6.1035.