“Dietary changes and nutritional support can help prevent ear infections?” asked my 4-year-old patient’s parents. Their daughter, Tara, had a history of chronic ear infections which had been treated with numerous rounds of antibiotics. They came to see me to explore how naturopathic medicine might help prevent Tara’s recurring infections.
Chronic ear infections, known medically as Serous Otitis Media, are one of the most common reasons parents bring their children to the doctor. It has been estimated that over two billion dollars are spent annually on medical and surgical treatments (such as tubes in the ears) for otitis media in the United States. For many children, ear infections begin in infancy and continue until five to seven years of age.
Children are more likely than adults to get ear infections because the angle of their eustachian tube is more horizontal and fluids can’t drain as effectively. The eustachian tube connects the middle ear with the throat, allowing for equalization of pressure in the ear. An earache develops when the tissue lining the inner ear swells and fluid builds up, causing pressure. Because this fluid is a perfect medium for bacteria to grow in, a child can develop a bacterial infection in the middle ear. The pain caused by the increased fluid and pressure can be severe and can make infants cry incessantly.
How do you know if your child has an ear infection? The most common symptoms are ear pain, fever, sleeplessness, irritability, drainage from the ear, refusal by a breast-fed infant to nurse on one side, nasal discharge, and diminished hearing. Take your child to the doctor if your child has a temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, has severe ear pain, and/or if discharge is present.
With an acute ear infection, antibiotics are the most effective course of action. However, lifestyle and dietary changes can help prevent the recurrence of chronic ear infections.
Which changes will make the most impact?
Limit your child’s intake of sweets. One study showed that after the ingestion of sugar, the ability of the immune cells, called white blood cells, to fight infection decreased by up to sixty percent.
Rebalance intestinal bowel flora. It is known that the chronic use of antibiotics can promote the growth of yeast, also known as candida, which can lead to thrush (yeast in the mouth), diaper rash and imbalanced bowel flora. According to Dr. Michael A. Schmidt, author of the book Childhood Ear Infections, beneficial bowel flora, called acidophilus, can inhibit the growth of yeast and enhance immune function. He recommends acidophilus capsules or powder after a course of antibiotics. If your child is not allergic to dairy products, daily ingestion of yogurt can supply enough acidophilus.
Consider the possibility of an allergy to cow’s milk. Breast-feeding infants until at least six months of age may help prevent this type of allergy. Many infants who aren’t breastfed react to dairy formulas with increased mucous secretions from the sinuses, which can lead to inner ear infections. Soy formulas are a healthy alternative.
Remove environmental allergens. Smoke, dust and mold can irritate mucous membranes and increase a child’s susceptibility to upper respiratory and ear infections.
Eliminate margarines and hydrogenated oils from your child’s diet. According to Dr. Schmidt, these fats can promote the formation of “bad” prostaglandins (or hormone-like substances), which can increase inflammation and allergic responses and decrease immune function. Instead, provide your child with “good” fats, also known as essential fats, which are found in fish and flax oil. Beware, breast-feeding mothers: the type of fat you’re ingesting will show up in your breast milk.
Give your child a good quality multiple vitamin that contains adequate levels of vitamin A and zinc. Numerous studies have shown vitamin A and zinc to be important for healthy immune function. Dosage should be based on the child’s age and weight.
Tara stopped ingesting sugar, cow’s milk, and margarine. She started eating salmon and using flax oil. I prescribed a good multiple vitamin and the beneficial bacteria, acidophilus, to be taken daily for two months. Tara is no longer plagued by recurrent ear infections, and now both she and her parents can enjoy her new activity – swimming lessons – worry free!
Article was originally printed in the Honolulu Advertiser, honoluluadvertiser.com.