Ear infections are the second most common childhood infection after cold and flu, and are the most common reason for antibiotic treatment in children. However, there is now growing concern that the overuse of antibiotics is leading to the emergence of increasing numbers of bacteria that are resistant to their effects. What is more, a study published last month in the British Medical Journal showed that taking a wait-and-see approach to ear infections can substantially reduces the amount of antibiotics used, reduces the risk of side effects from this medication, and does not increase pain or discomfort overall. In fact, other studies suggest that, for the most part, prescribing antibiotics has little or no benefit compared to doing nothing at all. So, if antibiotics are not the answer for ear infections, what other treatment options are there? Fortunately, there is a wealth of evidence which shows that natural approaches can be very successful in controlling and sometimes eradicating childhood ear problems.
Inflammation in the middle ear, often referred to as ‘otitis media’ by the medical profession, comes in two main types. One type, known as ‘acute otitis media’ is caused by infection behind the eardrum. This condition usually causes pain, bulging of the eardrum and the formation of pus. The other type of ear inflammation is called ‘serous otitis media’. Here, fluid builds up behind the ear drum, and this can persist for months at a time and impair hearing. Unlike acute otitis media, serious otitis media is not caused by an infection. A common treatment for this condition is the insertion of small plastic tubes (grommets) into the eardrum. The theory here is that air can then pass into the middle ear chamber, allowing fluid to drain to the back of the throat down a structure known as the eustation tube. Here again, this conventional approach is of dubious value, with one study showing that the insertion of grommets may improve hearing for only six months, and can actually make hearing worse.
The key to controlling otitis media problems is to stop the condition happening in the first place. In practice, otitis media is often the result of a sensitivity to one or more foods. It appears that in susceptible individuals, certain foods may trigger the production of fluid in the middle ear cavity and/or the eustation tube (serous otitis media). Once formed, this fluid represents a good breeding ground for bacteria, and thus increases the risk of acute otitis media The link between food sensitivity and otitis media is not a new concept, and was noted as far back as the 1940s. More recent research has supported this association. In one study published in 1994, of 104 children with serous otitis media, four out of five tested positive for food sensitivity. Of these, 86 p.c. enjoyed significant improvement when problem foods were eliminated from the diet. While just about any food can increase the risk of middle ear problems, research published in the American Journal of Otology in 1997 found that the most likely culprits are wheat, milk, corn, egg, yeast and soy.
Apart from food sensitivity, another dietary factor that often plays a part in otitis media is sugar. Sugar consumption can inhibit the immune system, thereby reducing the ability to resist bacterial infections. In one study, young adults were given 24 fluid ounces of a cola drink which contained more than 60 grams of sugar. Within 45 minutes, the ability of their immune cells to engulf bacteria dropped by half. Reducing sugar consumption is very likely to reduce the risk of acute otitis media in the long term.