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Middle Ear Infection;Otitis Media
Principal Proposed Natural Treatments
Avoiding Passive Smoke Inhalation; Breastfeeding ; Herbal Ear Drop Combinations Containing Mullein and Garlic; Xylitol
Other Proposed Natural Treatments
Acute otitis media (AOM) is a painful infection of the middle ear, the portion of the ear behind the eardrum. (Another form of ear infection, otitis externa or swimmer's ear, is entirely different and is not covered here.)
AOM often follows a cold, sore throat, or other respiratory illness. Although it can affect adults, this occurs primarily in infants and young children. It's estimated that by age 7, up to 95% of all children in the US will have experienced at least one bout of AOM—it's the most common reason parents take a child to the doctor.
When the Eustachian tube connecting the upper part of the throat to the middle ear is blocked by a cold's mucus and swelling, fluids pool behind the eardrum, providing an ideal place for bacteria to grow; an infection may set in, generating even more fluid. The pressure this exerts on the eardrum can be intensely painful. The eardrum turns red and bulges. Children too young to explain their discomfort cry, fuss, and pull at their ears. They might also appear unresponsive because they can't hear well—fluid buildup in the middle ear prevents the eardrum and small bones in the ear from moving, causing temporary hearing loss.
In addition, a complication called secretory otitis media (fluid build-up in the middle ear) may develop and cause continuous hearing loss for months. Other possible, though rare, complications of AOM include mastoiditis (an infection of the bone behind the ear) and spinal meningitis.
Without treatment, most middle ear infections resolve on their own, often through a harmless rupture of the eardrum.1In the Netherlands, pediatricians take a conservative approach, generally waiting 24 to 72 hours until they are certain an ear infection warrants antibiotics.2,32
US doctors, however, tend to initiate treatment early. This practice has been criticized on several grounds. First, aggressive antibiotic treatment has not been found effective in preventing complications, such as serous otitis,3pneumococcal meningitis,4or hearing loss.33
In addition, antibiotic treatment does not even appear to help AOM itself very much. For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlledtrial of 240 children ages 6 months to 2 years found so little benefit with antibiotic treatment that the authors recommended physician-supervised watchful waiting rather than immediate treatment.5
In other published reviews, the benefits of antibiotics for AOM have also been found less than impressive. A review of 33 randomized trials involving 5,400 children concluded that antibiotics modestly improved the rate of recovery.6An evaluation of six randomized, controlled studies concluded that early antibiotic use had only slight benefit, reducing pain and fever in a small percentage of children and helping to prevent the development of infection in the other ear, but not significantly speeding up recovery of hearing.7Modest benefits were also seen in a more recent trial of 315 children.8Another study found that children with recurrent ear infections do not appear to benefit from preventive antibiotic treatment.9A meta-analysis (formal statistical review) concluded that antibiotic treatment may be helpful in children younger than two years old who have infections in both ears, and in children with drainage from the ear, but for other children it may be preferable to delay use of antibiotics.36
However, the claim (often made in alternative medicine circles) that early antibiotic treatment causes an increased rate of ear infection recurrence does not appear to be correct.10
Note: Despite the issues raised above, simply withholding antibiotic treatment can be dangerous. Any child who appears to have an ear infection should be seen by a physician.
When ear infections do reoccur frequently, a physician may insert a tube into the infected ear to drain fluids and relieve pressure, a procedure called tympanostomy. Nearly one million American children undergo this procedure each year; however, its usefulness is somewhat controversial.11-13
Although there is as yet no natural treatment for AOM, there are several promising approaches parents can take that may help prevent children from developing ear infections or reduce symptoms.
A natural sugar found in plums, strawberries, and raspberries, xylitol is used as a sweetener in some "sugarless" gums and candies. One of its advantages is that it inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, a type of bacteria that causes dental cavities.14 Xylitol also inhibits the growth of a related bacteria species, Streptococcus pneumoniae, implicated in ear infections.15 Additionally, xylitol acts against Haemophilus influenza, another bacteria that frequently causes ear infections.16
Based on this evidence, xylitol has been tried as a preventive treatment for middle ear infections with some success. Two well-designed studies enrolling a total of 1,163 children found that when taken 5 times daily throughout a large portion of the cold season, chewing gum and syrup sweetened with xylitol helped prevent middle ear infections. However, xylitol has not proved effective when taken 3 times daily rather than 5 times daily, nor when it is used only after the onset of a respiratory infection.
In one of the positive studies, 857 children were given either placebo or xylitol 5 times daily in the form of chewing gum, syrup, or lozenges.17Over the next two-month study period, the gum proved distinctly effective, reducing the risk of developing AOM by a full 40%. Xylitol syrup was also effective, but less so. The lozenges didn't prove effective; researchers speculated that children got tired of suckingn the large candies and didn't get the proper dose of xylitol. (In addition, the children were able to distinguish between the xylitol and placebo lozenges by taste, making that portion of the study single-blind.) Similarly positive results had been seen in an earlier three-month, double-blind study by the same researchers, evaluating about 300 children, and again using a dosing schedule requiring use of xylitol 5 times daily.18
Another issue with the studies is that taking xylitol many times throughout the day requires a lot of effort. Because of this, researchers set out to discover whether it would still work if taken only 3 times daily. Unfortunately, in their 3-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 663 children, no benefits were seen.38Another study, this one enrolling 1,277 children, took a different approach to simplifying the use of xylitol: they used the original dosage schedule, but began treatment only after a respiratory infection had begun, rather than over a period of many months.39 Again, no benefits were seen.
Authors who published a careful review of this evidence did find support for the use of xylitol to prevent ear infections, especially in healthy children attending day care.42 They pointed out, though, the need for more trials from a range of researchers.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Xylitol article.
Breastfeeding may help prevent AOM. Numerous studies tracking ear infection frequency in large groups of infants found that the infants who were breastfed exclusively had significantly fewer middle ear infections than those fed formula.19-21 Such observational studies aren't as reliable as placebo-controlled or double-blind designs, but the results do suggest that breastfeeding is a good preventive measure.
Researchers aren't sure how breast milk might protect infants from ear infections. Studies attempting to determine if breast milk inhibits bacteria associated with AOM have yielded mixed results.22,23
Avoidance of Cigarette Smoke
Environmental conditions may predispose a child to middle ear infections. A study of 132 daycare students found that the 45 children exposed to cigarette smoke at home had a 38% higher risk of middle ear infections than the 87 children whose parents didn't smoke.24
Herbal Ear Drops
The herbs mullein and garlic are traditionally combined with other herbs in oily ear drops designed to reduce the pain of ear infections. One study supports this use. Two double-blind trials enrolling a total of more than 250 children with eardrum pain caused by middle ear infection compared the effectiveness of an herbal preparation containing mullein, garlic, St. John’s wort, and calendula against a standard anesthetic ear drop product (ametocaine and phenazone).30,31 The results indicated that the two treatments were equally effective. In addition, one of the studies found that use of the antibiotic amoxicillin did not add additional benefit.
However, due to the strong placebo response in pain conditions, this study would have needed a placebo group to provide truly dependable evidence that the herbs were effective.
Keep in mind that while herbal eardrop products may relieve pain, the actual infection is on the other side of the eardrum, and it is not immediately clear how the herbs can get to where they could do any good. There is some evidence, however, that essential oilsof herbs may be able to penetrate the eardrum and reach the other side.35 However, essential oils can be toxic as well as irritating to tissues.
Note: Garlic and its oil are too harsh to instill into the ear. Herbal drops that contain garlic use much milder extracts of the herb.
Last reviewedSeptember 2014by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.