Ear Infections That . . . Aren’t
So, this may be an odd way to start a post on ear infections, but before we get into the nitty gritty of comfort measures and natural remedies, I want to take a moment to discuss one of the most common misconceptions about ear infections.
And that would be . . . the infection part. According to Dr. Allan Lieberthal, pediatrician and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines for diagnosing ear infections, the medical community has contributed to the “over-diagnosis of [ear] infection.” (source)
How does this happen? My good friend and former chiropractor, Dr. Haggerton, explains:
For those of you who have . . . taken your child into the pediatrician because they are hurting, acting funny, and/or pulling at their ears and the doc looked in their ears with the otoscope and said ‘Yep, it’s red, little Johnny’s got an ear infection. I’ll write you a script for an antibiotic.’
Think about that for a minute, how did the doctor know just off of the color of the tympanic membrane that your child had an infection?!?
The truth is, a red and slightly bulging tympanic membrane can be a sign that fluid is not draining well, but it’s not necessarily a sign of ear infection. And even if an infection is present, according to CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton most ear infections are viral in nature and won’t respond to antibiotics anyway. (source)
So what will that course of antibiotics really do to help your child? If the earache has been misdiagnosed – absolutely nothing. Or worse, according to Consumer Reports it may actually cause future ear infections! (source)
So if ear infections are over-diagnosed, what else causes earaches? According to Dr. Haggerton . . .
with children, the eustachian tube (ear canal) is not slanted down like ours as adults.. Their canal is straight across or horizontal, [meaning] your baby doesn’t get much help from gravity to get the fluid to drain out of the lymph nodes and the ears into the throat and out of their body. The problem comes when fluid and congestion build up in the lymph nodes in the neck and throat and cannot be moved or flushed out of the child’s body. That fluid has to go somewhere so if the fluid can’t go back ‘down’, then it will frequently back up into the child’s eustachian tube and cause fluid pressure on the back of the ear drum.”
What Causes Fluid To Back Up?
Other than the natural shape of a child’s eustachian tube, misalignments in the head/neck area, teething and/or undiagnosed food sensitivities can cause swelling that prevents drainage. (source) In these cases, the irritation will often have the same symptoms as an infection. Left untreated, fluid buildup can eventually lead to a legitimate infection, but until that point antibiotics will do no good.
So What’s A Parent To Do?
Obviously, the decision making process will be different for every parent. The AAP Guidelines now state that antibiotics should not be prescribed unless there is an obvious ear infection – a very bulging tympanic membrane. If fluid is present some parents might insist on a swab culture to confirm it is bacterial rather than viral before considering antibiotics. If they do, chances are the earache will resolve on it’s own before the results come back. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that may be for the best anyway. Most ear infections – whether truly an infection or not – clear up without any treatment, so they recommend the wait-and-see approach for:
- Children 6 to 23 months with mild inner ear pain in one ear for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than 102.2 F (39 C)
- Children 24 months and older with mild inner ear pain in one or both ears for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than102.2 F (39 C) (source)
Natural Remedies For Ear Infections
Many who choose the “wait and see” approach recommended by the AAP opt to support the immune system naturally while focusing on comfort measures. For those that prefer to avoid Tylenol and other pain medications that may delay the healing process, here are ideas . . .
*Safety Tip* from Creative Christian Mama: “If there is any puss coming out of the ear, that means the ear drum is perforated (it tore, due to the pressure). It will heal, but DO NOT put anything at all inside an ear that is perforated.”
Garlic & Mullein Oil
According to a recent study conducted by Washington State University, garlic is 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics at killing bacterial strains related to foodborne illness. They also found that it often worked in a fraction of the time.
So what does this mean for ear infections? Nothing directly, but it does make me wonder how effective it is for other strains. Garlic also has been shown to inhibit some viruses, which some feel makes it a better choice than antibiotics, which only cover bacterial infections. (source)
Bonus fact: Garlic contains alliin and allinase. When a whole clove is chopped or crushed these compounds combine to form allicin, a compound with soothing properties that may provide a measure of comfort while garlic does it’s other magic.
You can find garlic and mullein oil here or possibly at your local health food store. You can also make your own with this recipe. (Note: The article mentions the possibility of adding certain essential oils to the ear drops. I do not recommend that.)
Tip from Creative Christian Mama: Use a dropper to put 2 to 3 drops in the ear. (Sing a song to keep the child distracted, since they will need to lay there for 30 seconds to allow the oil to get all the way in the ear canal.) The warmth of the oil helps to reduce the pain (as does the lavender oil) and can be used once an hour. Use at least four times a day, but preferably six or more, until the child is well.
Massaging the outside of the ear and face/jaw/neck area with diluted essential oils is thought to encourage good circulation and facilitate normal drainage. “Massage in a downward direction behind the ear on the neck and apply gentle inward pressure in front of the ear toward the cheek (about where sideburns would be).” (source)
Oils often recommended for this purpose are eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, oregano, chamomile, tea tree, and thyme. Here is a guide to diluting oils. Please keep in mind that some oils should not be introduced until child reaches a certain age. There’s a list of kid-friendly essential oils in this post.
Cod Liver Oil
According to Dr. Michael Gerber, “Vitamin A deficiency disrupts the clearing mechanism of the ear.” (source) Adequate levels of Vitamin A have also been found to improve outcomes in other illnesses, such as measles. (source)
Dr. Gerber makes a distinction between betacarotene and true Vitamin A, which is only found in animal products such as fermented cod liver oil. (Read more about fermented cod liver oil here. You can also find information on where to buy it on my shopping list under the Superfoods & Supplements section.)
The majority of our immune system is found in the digestive tract, so supporting it with beneficial bacteria is recommended by many practitioners. If ear inflammation is due to food sensitivities, it may also be beneficial in helping to moderate and even reverse those sensitivities over time using protocols such as the GAPS Diet. (I talk about my favorite probiotics on the Superfoods & Supplements section of this page)
According to Dr. Haggerton, “The lymph nodes need properly functioning muscles to contract with your baby’s head movements in order to flush out lymph fluid and congestion that pools in the area. If the bones in the top of your baby’s neck become restricted (due to birth, or any other type of physical stressor), the muscles around that area cannot contract and work correctly. If the muscles don’t contract perfectly, then the body has a hard time flushing out the fluid in the ear canals. Adjustments also boost the immune system and help the body to function optimally. Read more research on chiropractic and ear infections here.” (source)
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, elderberry may have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. Among the various natural remedies for ear infections, it is a favorite with those who want to support the immune system naturally. (Buy it here or make your own.)
The Onion Remedy
The warmth of a fresh onion poultice is said to provide comfort and assist with circulation. Onion is also believed to have antibacterial and antiviral properties, which may be helpful depending on the reason for the discomfort.
This article explains how to make the poultice:
“Use one brown or yellow onion, chopped in half. Bake it face down on the oven rack at 350 degrees until you can just start to smell the onion, and it’s just beginning to recede. You want it to be just hot enough that you won’t burn the ears – test by touching as you would formula. Have the person lie down on their back with their head supported by a pillow. Place the onions over the ears like ear muffs, and then wrap them completely using a natural cloth such as a 100% cotton towel, or 100% wool scarf. You do NOT want to have the chemical fumes from an acrylic fabric going into the ear canal. What you are doing is wrapping the top of the head, covering the onions, and then keeping it sealed by wrapping it loosely around the neck. This is why a wool scarf (if you or they are not allergic) works really well. Leave on for about 10 – 15 minutes, or until onion cools. Repeat again as needed.”
More Comfort Measures
Whether it be via the onion remedy or the measures below, warmth does wonders for getting the lymphatic fluid moving and easing the discomfort of earaches. Fill a cotton or wool sock with rice or sea salt and bake until warm. Place it on the affected ear (testing first to make sure it won’t burn) until it cools. Repeat as often as desired.
Note: Salt is my preference because it has antimicrobial properties, but it’s also a lot more expensive. For that reason, rice works just fine for us.
When To See A Doctor
There are times when contacting a doctor is necessary. According to Dr. Allan Lieberthal, whom I mentioned earlier is the pediatrician and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines on diagnosing ear infections, the “Basic rule of thumb for parents is: Don’t call the doctor for an antibiotic unless the child has a fever over 102 degrees or severe symptoms of cough, runny nose and ear pain, . . . Instead, a parent can safely wait 48 to 72 hours, giving pain medicine as needed, and watching to see if those symptoms simply go away. If the fever rises or the cough and runny nose last for several days, that’s when the child needs to visit the doctor for a full evaluation.”
Other popular remedies for kids:
- One study suggests that the main ingredient in this homemade cough syrup is more effective than dextromethorphan, which is the active ingredient in OTC cough syrup.
- Growing up shouldn’t be a pain, but sometimes it is! Here are some natural remedies that studies suggest may help with growing pains.
- Pin these natural remedies for lice, then you hope you never need them!
- New research suggests that fevers are beneficial. Here’s what two distinguished pediatricians have to say on the subject, plus five natural ways to soothe a feverish child.
- Check out this homemade burn salve for minor uh-oh.
Have you tried any natural remedies for ear infections?
How did they work for you?
Want more research-backed natural remedies?
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Disclaimer: This post is for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Please see my full disclaimer here.
photo credit: Darwin Bell