If your child suffers from ear infections, you have lots of company. Approximately 80% to 90% of children will have at least one ear infection before school age.1,2
In the United States, ear infections are the most common reason antibiotics are prescribed, and the top reason children undergo surgery.2,3 Most of the time, however, these treatments are unnecessary.4
What’s more, there is a growing body of research confirming the effectiveness of natural therapies for preventing and treating childhood ear infections.
The cause of ear infections
Otitis media, or inflammation of the middle ear, is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, but allergies can also play a role.2,5 Ear infections occur most frequently in children between the ages of 6 and 12 months due to their immature immune systems.5
Young children are also at greater risk for ear infections because their Eustachian tubes, which are responsible for draining the fluid from the inner ear, are shorter, narrower and more horizontal.5 When the tube swells because of inflammation (often caused by the common cold or allergies), the ear fills with fluid and creates a breeding ground for bacteria.
In addition to younger age, upper respiratory tract infections, and allergies, well-known risk factors for developing ear infections include:1,6
- Group day care
- Exposure to tobacco smoke or pollution
- Pacifier use
- Not exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months
- Cleft palate.
Symptoms of otitis media
Children with acute otitis media usually have a rapid onset of ear pain. However, in young children who are not yet verbal, otitis media symptoms may be nonspecific and include tugging/rubbing/holding of the ear, excessive crying, irritability, fever, symptoms of the common cold, or changes in the child’s sleep or behavior pattern as noted by the parent.
The most reliable way to tell if a child truly has an ear infection is a physical examination by a healthcare provider.
Conventional treatment of otitis media
The latest treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics call for immediate antibiotic treatment in children 6 months and older if both ears are infected, or if signs or symptoms in one ear are severe (such as moderate or severe pain, pain for at least 48 hours, or temperature 102.2°F or higher).3 In milder cases, physicians may choose to wait for 48 hours before beginning treatment.
Because of ballooning rates of antibiotic resistance, the frequency of adverse effects caused by antibiotics, and the fact that most cases of otitis media resolve on their own even if caused by bacterial infection, these guidelines are hotly debated.7
Conventional guidelines recommend over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen for symptomatic relief of ear pain, fever, irritability, and disrupted sleep.1,3
Children who have frequent ear infections are often treated with myringotomy, a surgical procedure that places tubes in the eardrum to reduce pressure caused by excessive buildup of fluid and to help drain pus.
Fortunately, there are a number of well-researched natural therapies shown to help prevent and treat ear infections.
Homeopathic treatment of ear infections
Homeopathy can be an incredibly safe and effective treatment for both acute and chronic recurrent ear infections.8-11 It accelerates early symptom relief, leads to less antibiotic use, and has fewer and less serious side effects than conventional drug treatment.8-11
In classical (also called constitutional) homeopathy, the practitioner prescribes an individualized homeopathic remedy based on the patient’s overall symptom pattern. In one study, 38 out of 40 children prescribed a constitutional homeopathic remedy were cured with no antibiotics.9 (The other two did not return for follow-up.) Another 40 children in the study received conventional pain relievers and fever-reducing medications for three days, followed by antibiotics if needed. Only one child from this group did not need antibiotics. Symptoms improved more quickly in the homeopathy group, and four cases were completely cured by the third day.
In another study, individually prescribed homeopathy resolved ear infections 2.4 times faster than placebo controls, and there were no complications observed in the study group.10
A third study found that 70.7% of the children treated with homeopathy were free from recurrent ear infections in the following year compared to only 56.5% of the children in the conventionally treated group.11
If a visit to a homeopathy practitioner is not possible, an over-the-counter combination product (such as Hyland’s Earache drops or tablets) is definitely worth trying. In one study, adding a combination homeopathic ear drop remedy to standard therapy significantly lowered symptom scores; the children reported less ear pain and recovered more quickly that the children receiving only standard care.12
Herbal ear drops for pain
An herbal ear drop formula commonly known as Garlic Mullein Compound is reported to have pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.13-15 It typically contains extracts of calendula flower, St. John’s Wort flower, mullein flower, and garlic bulb in a base of olive oil.
A study published in Pediatrics found that the herbal ear drops cured ear infections as well as anesthetic drops.14 The herbal drops, however, were better at reducing pain. After the second day of treatment, pain was reduced by 95.9% in the herbal ear drop group compared to only 84.7% in the anesthetic group. The addition of antibiotics to either group did not significantly change the results.
Ear drops containing this formula can be usually found at your typical health food store or vitamin shop.
Warm the bottle of drops under warm running water and apply three to five drops three times a day. Some naturopathic doctors recommend placing a cotton ball in the child’s ear after the drops are administered. The cotton ball won’t stay in long, but that’s okay.
Xylitol and probiotics for ear infection prevention
To help prevent acute otitis media from developing or recurring, studies support the use of xylitol and probiotics, among other immune-stimulating nutrients and herbs.
Xylitol is a natural sugar substitute that prevents bacteria from adhering to the cells that line the nose and throat. An analysis found that it reduced the occurrence of acute otitis media in healthy children attending day care by an average of 25%.16 Take two grams of xylitol five times a day as gum, lozenge, or syrup to prevent ear infections.16-17
Probiotics. Streptococcus salivarius K12 (Bactoblis) has been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria that commonly cause acute otitis media.18
In one recent study, treatment for 90 days showed a substantial reduction of acute otitis media episodes and improved health of the ears, nose, and throat in children with chronic fluid in their ears who were more prone to frequent acute episodes of otitis media.
In another study, episodes of acute otitis media were reduced by 40% compared to the previous year (and strep throat episodes were lowered by 90%) after 90 days of treatment.19 In the six months following the 90-day treatment, ear and throat infections were reduced by 60%.
Many supplement companies in the United States sell this strain of probiotic. The recommended dose for prevention of ear infections is 5 billion CFUs of S. salivarius K12 daily.
Note: Other probiotic strains studied have not been so successful at preventing otitis media.
Summary of treatment recommendations
To prevent ear infections, give your child 2 grams of xylitol five times daily as a lozenge, gum, or syrup, as well as a probiotic in the form of S. Salivarius K12 (5 billion CFU’s per day).
If he or she does come down with an acute infection, you can confidently forego antibiotics if the pain is not too severe and the fever is not above 102.5° F. Try a homeopathic combination product and/or garlic mullein compound.
For the homeopathic drops or tablets, follow the label’s recommendations. For the garlic mullein compound, apply three to five drops of warmed oil to the ears three times daily.
Meanwhile, eliminate sugar from the diet. Sugar and sweet foods (with the exception of fruit and berries—which have actually been shown to decrease the risk) have been found to increase the incidence of otitis media.22
Remember that children less than 3 years old, with three months or longer of continuous infection should be evaluated for hearing loss to prevent developmental delays.
Following these steps with your child will help treat acute ear infections and reduce the chances for future ones.
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2. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2014 Jul;14(7):447.
3. Pediatrics. 2013 Mar;131(3):e964-99.
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13. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2001 Jul;155(7):796-9.
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15. BMC Compl Alt Med. 2012;12(Suppl 1):P112.
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17. Int J Audiol. 2010 Oct;49(10):754-61.
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