Otitis Media and Chronic Ear Infections

Chronic ear infections (also called serous otitis media) are the most common disease in kids under 15 years of age. They are responsible for 25 million doctor's office visits each year and afflict 10 million children in the United States. Chronic ear infections, which occur when fluid builds up behind the eardrum, frequently go undiagnosed. Often the only symptom is loss of hearing, which might be noticed by parents when a child turns on a TV or radio and sets the volume very high. This hearing loss can have a significant impact on a child when it occurs early in life, affecting emotional, mental and psychological development, as well as socialization and academic performance.

While chronic ear infections differ from the acute ear infections that typically cause severe ear pain and fever, chronic infections are a common cause of the acute ones, especially when the acute ear infections are recurring. Studies have shown that up to one third of children with acute ear infections have evidence of chronic ear infections four or more weeks after the acute infection has been treated.

The standard medical treatment for chronic ear infections consists of antibiotics and/or surgery to insert ear tubes to allow the ears to drain. Unfortunately, some studies have shown up to a 600% increase in the rate of recurrence when antibiotics are used in the treatment of chronic ear infections. Furthermore, other studies have found that ear tubes were no more effective than a placebo in preventing the recurrence of ear infections.

Fortunately, there is a solution that is effective for many children with chronic ear infections. Food allergies or sensitivities are a very common underlying cause of this type of ear infection. While estimates of the prevalence of food allergies varies widely, a recent study published in Annals of Allergy found that 78% of childhood ear infections are associated with food allergies or sensitivities. This study further demonstrated that 86% of these children got significantly better when they eliminated allergic foods.

The most common foods to cause allergies in children include wheat, dairy, eggs, citrus, soy, corn, and peanuts. Specific foods that a child is allergic to can be determined either by the elimination/challenge diet or by blood testing.

Other signs that a child may have food allergies include stomach upset, diarrhea or loose stools, flatulence, nausea, and post nasal drip. The child may also suffer from conditions such as eczema, asthma, and migraine headaches, which can also be caused by food allergies. Many children with food allergies and chronic ear infections, however, will experience none of these symptoms.

Breastfeeding your baby is also an effective way to help prevent chronic ear infections. Babies that have been breastfed for four or more months have a reduced risk of developing chronic ear infections for about 12 months after breastfeeding ends. Whether this is due to a reduction in food allergies or protective factors in the breast milk has yet to be determined.

Passive cigarette smoke also increases the risk of developing chronic ear infections, by as much as 30-40% in some studies.

Other treatments which may be effective in the treatment of chronic ear infections include N-acetyl cysteine (an anti-oxidant), cromolyn (a synthetic form of a natural bioflavonoid), and ear drops containing botanical medicines such as garlic and mullein.

While most children with chronic ear infections can be treated effectively with the above natural therapies, acute ear infections require prompt medical attention as they do occasionally progress to serious conditions such as mastoiditis and meningitis.

Ear infections are best managed using a comprehensive approach that includes dietary modifications, the appropriate use of herbal and nutritional supplements, and the treatment of any underlying conditions which may be exacerbating the infections.