By Peggy O’Mara and Jane McConnell
Earaches are the number one cause of pediatric visits. Fluid can easily build up in a child’s tiny middle ear, creating pressure on the eardrum and causing intense pain. Most ear infections are painful but not serious. If your child experiences more than two ear infections a year, you should look for underlying causes. There are several reasons why fluid might build up in the middle ear. They include:
Allergy. Many studies have suggested a link between food intolerance and middle ear problems. One study tested 104 children with recurring middle ear problems for food allergy and discovered 81 to be allergic. After eliminating the offending foods, 86 percent got better, and 94 percent got worse when the offending foods were reintroduced.1 The most common allergens are dairy products, wheat, egg white, peanuts, and soy. If your child suffers from recurring ear infections, you might first try eliminating dairy products from his or her diet, then the other common allergens.
Nutritional deficiency. Researchers have found that children with high susceptibility to ear infections are often deficient in zinc, iron, or vitamin A. One study found substances related to the improper intake of dietary fats in the middle ear fluid of children with otitis media. Eating trans-fatty acids–found in margarine as well as french fries, donuts, cake frostings, and other junk foods–can set the stage for inflammation.2 Often children with recurrent earaches improve simply by switching to a more wholesome diet.
Mechanical obstruction. A blockage of the eustachian tube can occur as a result of swollen tonsils or adenoids, or from structural problems in the bones surrounding the ear. The biomechanics of these delicate bones can be disrupted by any physical trauma, including a fall or a difficult birth. Chiropractic adjustments or craniosacral therapy are often effective at resolving these problems and preventing recurring ear infections.
Many children with recurring ear infections undergo tympanostomy tube placement–surgical insertion of drainage tubes in the eardrum. Tube placement is the most common general anesthesia-based procedure performed on children under two. However, many doctors themselves believe that the surgery is prescribed more than is necessary. A study of more than 6,600 children who had undergone tube placement found that almost 60 percent of the surgeries performed were unnecessary or had risks equal to benefits.3 A five-year study reported in the Townsend Letter for Doctors (April 1991) indicated that the procedure provides only temporary relief from ear infections and may, in fact, cause deafness. In 98 children with tubes placed in one ear, there was a 21 percent higher incidence of deafness in the ears with the tubes.
Here are natural remedies for earaches:
Herbs. Ear drops can help relieve the pain of an earache. A blend of mullein and garlic oil is a good choice because of its antiviral and antibacterial properties; St. John’s wort and calendula can also be added. You can buy herbal ear drops or make your own. Garlic can be irritating to the ear canal in high concentrations, so be sure to dilute the garlic oil with other oils such as mullein.
To administer ear drops: Run hot water over a spoon until it is warm, pour a few drops of oil onto the spoon to warm the oil, then put two to three drops in each ear while your child is lying down; plug the ear loosely with a cotton ball. Repeat two or three times a day for no more than four days.
Aromatherapy. Make an aromatherapy ear rub with several drops of lavender, tea tree oil, and chamomile in 1 ounce of olive oil. Rub the oil mixture around the outside of the ear and over the lymph nodes on the side of the neck, or dab a cotton ball in the oil, gently place it in the ear, and leave it in until the infection is gone, replacing it with a fresh cotton ball several times a day.
Homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies can be administered at home to relieve the pain of occasional earaches. If your child is angry, fearful, and sensitive to light and noise, consider Belladonna, which is effective for earaches that come on suddenly, with severe, throbbing pains. Chamomilla is good for earaches associated with teething. Children who need Pulsatilla tend to be weepy, sensitive, and clingy. Their cheeks will be pale, and there may be a thick, yellow-green discharge from the nose or the ear. Symptoms often come on gradually, frequently following a cold. Aconite is for the sudden onset of earache after a chill. The child may awaken in the night screaming with pain and appearing anxious and scared. Recurring earaches also respond well to homeopathic treatment; consult a trained homeopath for help in choosing the right remedy.
Excerpted from Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting by Peggy O’Mara with Jane McConnell (New York: Pocket Books, 2000). Appeared in Mothering magazine issue 104, January/February 2001
1. T. M. Nsouli et al., “Role of Food Allergy in Serious Otitis Media,” Annals of Allergy 73 (1994).
2. T. T. K. Jung, “Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Other Arachidonic Acid Metabolites in the Pathogenesis of Otitis Media,” Laryngoscope 98 (September 1988).
3. L. C. Kleinman et al., “The Medical Appropriateness of Tympanostomy Tubes Proposed for Children Younger than 16 Years in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 271 (1994).
Peggy O’Mara is the founder and publisher of Mothering magazine. Jane McConnell is a former associate editor of Mothering currently working as a freelance writer