Another sleepless night. Your little one is miserable and you are fraught with the knowledge that it is yet again another ear infection. For many young children, ear infections become recurrent and difficult to avoid. Luckily there are solutions to breaking that cycle. Some solutions, such as becoming more aware of food allergens, take time and persistence. Others may provide more immediate relief, but it will be short-lived unless the ‘big picture’ is addressed.
How the Ear Works
The ear is divided into three parts The outer ear is the area most visible. The sound travels through the ear canal, past the ear drum, down to the middle ear. This is where the bones that transmit the sound to the inner ear are found. The inner ear is rich with nerve endings that receive the sound. It is also considered the ‘balance centre’.
The eustachian tube is found in the middle ear. This passage way connects to the nose and the throat, and allows drainage of any fluid collected in the middle ear. In infants and young children the eustachian tube is shorter and lays in a more horizontal position (over time it will develop a more downward angle). This makes it more difficult for excess fluid to drain properly. Should this tube become blocked, infection can readily develop in the middle ear and the subsequent fluids are trapped. Tubes can become blocked by congestion caused by a cold or other upper respiratory infection, or by a reaction to a food or environmental allergen.
If your child complains of ear pain, hearing loss, is unable to lie flat, wakes frequently at night, is extremely fussy, has a fever, or has fluid draining from his/her ear, you should see a physician. A proper diagnosis will give you more confidence in the remedies you choose.
Ear infections are one of the most common reasons antibiotics are prescribed to children. But a subsequent side effect can be the proliferation of yeast (Candida) in the body. Yeast infections may make a child more susceptible to ear infections as they can leave their body’s immune system weakened and vulnerable. The effectiveness of antibiotics in the treatment of ear infections is still being debated in the literature. It is known that many cases would have otherwise resolved themselves without treatment, and many practitioners recognize that repeat prescriptions are more common once antibiotics have been administered.
Secondhand smoke has been proven by research to increase a child’s risk of ear infections. Be sure that your child’s exposure is very limited.
Seasonal allergies (hayfever) and sensitivities to household allergens such as dust, mold, pet dander, etc. may do two things: 1) reduce your child’s immune capabilities and 2) elicit an allergic response that results in the swelling and blocking of the eustachian tubes.
Sensitivities to pollen, mold, pet dander, dust, and food proteins may trigger reoccurring ear infections. The immune system’s response to foreign invaders usually results in inflammatory congestion which can block the eustachian tubes. Because the body is so busy trying to ward off the ‘invader’, it is incapable of appropriately dealing with a bacterial overgrowth that may occur in the warm moist environment of the middle ear. Keep your child’s environment reasonably free of environmental allergens by cleaning often, using hypoallergenic materials in the bedroom, and installing an air filter.
Food allergies will need to be identified and avoided until the body is reasonably strong enough to resist an inappropriate immune response. It is best to work with a practitioner who can help you identify problematic foods while still ensuring that a healthy diet is maintained. Be wary of practitioners who put nursing moms or small children on very restrictive elimination diets. This can sometimes do more harm than good, and compliance is minimal after a short while. Common foods that are often the culprit are: dairy, soy, wheat, corn, eggs, and oranges. Other foods may be responsible for a reaction as well.
Many children will get pain relief from a warm compress placed over the affected ear. Dip a soft cloth in very warm water or tea and wring it out. When it is cool enough to touch, place it over the child’s ear. Alternately you could use a heat pack filled with flax seeds, buckwheat, or rice. These all tend to maintain their heat longer and are less messy than a wet cloth. The essential oils lavender, roman chamomile and/or tea tree can be added to the water or dropped onto the heat pack.
Massaging around the ear can help the fluid drain into the eustachian tube and provide some pain relief. This can be done with or without oil but if a massage oil is used you might consider adding essential oils (see recipes at the end of this article). Massage from along the back of the ear down toward the jaw line in repeated strokes. Discontinue if it causes your child too much discomfort. If the lymph nodes (glands) are swollen, lightly massage them using the same essential oil blend to help them drain and to relieve discomfort.
If the pain is caused by congestion, particularly that associated with a cold, keep the mucous thinned by having your child drink very warm herbal teas such as lemon balm, catnip, spearmint, ginger, and/or licorice root. A vaporizer (we love the one by Pure Sense) used in the room where your child sleeps, or some time spent in a steamy bathroom before bed can help too. You might consider adding lavender essential oil to the vaporizer, or eucalyptus oil if your child is over the age of two.
Prop your child’s head up at a 30 degree angle while lying down. This encourages drainage and discourages the feeling of pressure often felt when laying flat. Adjust the upper portion of the bed so that it slopes down toward their feet by placing something under the mattress or the legs of the bed.
Eliminate the Infection – Two Important Steps
Natural remedies can be very effective at curbing an ear infection, but a strong healthy immune system is even better. Ear infections are notorious for repeating themselves. Sometimes a child barely seems to recover from one before another one occurs. Therefore the best ways to eliminate the bacteria causing the infection is to:
- a) stimulate the child’s own immune defenses and
- b) utilize natural microbials
Because many infections are precipitated by a viral infection attacking the respiratory system, this approach will cover all bases.
Be sure that the child’s diet is free of refined and/or concentrated sugars (table sugar, corn syrup, honey) and low in naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit juices. Sugar is known to lower the body’s resistance to infection, and furthermore it feeds the yeast that may be triggering the infections in the first place. If your child is dealing with a severe yeast infection as determined by a qualified health practitioner, it is important to work closely with your caregiver in making the necessary dietary changes.
Whole grains; vegetable proteins such as beans, peas, and nuts; colourful fruits and vegetables; and adequate water/fluids should make up the bulk of your child’s diet. For a child under 8 months, breastmilk should still be the primary source of calories. Breastfeeding has been clinically proven to reduce the risk of ear infections. It is best to continue nursing until your child weans themselves, which could be 2 years or more.
Remedies to Aid the Immune System
Echinacea stimulates the white blood cells that are necessary for eliminating pathogens. Children who are prone to chronic ear infections have benefitted from continual use of Echinacea throughout the cold and flu season with a one week break out of every four. Otherwise a dose at the first sign of symptoms, and every 3-4 hours thereafter may prevent the problem from progressing.
Zinc supplements also boost the immune response to infection. For children that are old enough to chew, Zinc Lozenges are very convenient. Some are easier to chew than others, and some varieties contain echinacea or other immune boosting remedies.
Vitamin C not only increases the immune response, but is also anti-inflammatory. Chewable and Liquid Vitamin C supplements are available for children. Be sure to brush their teeth afterward, as this acidic vitamin can erode tooth enamel. You child may also experience loose stools while taking therapeutic dosages of vitamin C. Reduce the dosage until stools normalize and watch for signs of dehydration should it last for more than one day.
Garlic is surprisingly well tolerated by little tastebuds – if they are introduced to it early in life. Breastfed babies can taste garlic in Mom’s breastmilk after she eats some of this potent anti-microbial herb. Raw garlic is better than most supplements and creative ways exist for getting children to eat it. Recipes such as garlic bread, hummus, and guacamole are popular. For smaller children, and older ones who might refuse to eat it, infused garlic oil (see recipe) can be rubbed onto the soles of the feet. It is readily absorbed into the body. Don’t be surprised if your child has “garlic breath” shortly after a treatment, as garlic travels quickly to the lungs.
Probiotics For some unknown and many known reasons, some children have less intestinal flora than is necessary to properly digest food and protect the body from the growth of pathogens. Whether the mother used them during pregnancy, or they are used at any point in a child’s life, antibiotics create an imbalance between the protective flora we need a lot of and the negative flora we do not. It is very difficult for the body to replace the missing flora without close attention paid to dietary sources. Fermented foods such as kefir and yogurt are good sources, as is a probiotic supplement (also referred to as acidophilus).
A lack of probiotics sets the stage for fungal growth that has been linked to triggering ear infections. Most, if not all, children would benefit from daily supplementation if they are prone to infections. Research has shown that maternal supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding lowers the risk of childhood allergies by increasing protective factors in the breastmilk.
Breastmilk is a convenient carrier for many of the suggested remedies. The nursing mother can take an adult dose and pass on the benefits via her breastmilk.
Breastfeeding also supplies the child with important immune enhancing substances, further reduces the risk of developing allergies by protecting the intestines (“leaky” intestines allow more foreign material in to the blood stream) and contributes to appropriate physical development of the Eustachian tubes. Additional substances support the growth of intestinal flora which enhances the immune system.
Although prevention is the best medicine for ear infections, there are many natural solutions to the pain and discomfort your child experiences. Patience and diligence are key, but breaking the cycle is possible!
Recipes for Ear Infection Relief
Cut a thick slab of a yellow onion and warm it using a warm oven, microwave, or boiling water. When it is cool enough to handle, wrap it in cheesecloth and hold it on the affected ear. When it has cooled, remove it and reheat it for another application. Relieves pain an promotes circulation.
Instructions for ear drops: Place warmed 1-2 drops into the ears 3-4 times a day.
Ear drops #1 Garlic Oil
Places 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic into a double boiler or small sauce pan. Cover with just enough olive oil and heat gently for 20-30 minutes. Strain and bottle. Keep in the refrigerator. Anti-fungal and anti-bacterial.
Ear Drops # 2 Mullein Oil
Follow the recipe as above using 3-4 tablespoons of dried or fresh mullein leaves and/or flowers. Reduces inflammation, and relieves pain.
Ear Drops #3 St. John’s Wort Oil
Place the buds of the unopened flowers into just enough olive oil to cover. Seal the jar tightly and place in sunny window for at least 2 weeks. Strain and keep in the refrigerator. Anti-inflammatory, relieves pain.
Ear Drops # 4 Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE)
Add 3-4 drops of GSE (found in health food stores) to 30 ml of vegetable glycerin. Mix well. Anti-microbial
Or you can purchase ready-made drops: Mullein and Garlic Ear Oil
Add 3 drops of lavender, 3 drops of roman chamomile, and 3 drops of tea tree essential oils to 30 ml of grapeseed oil. Mix well and massage a few drops at a time around the outside of the ear. Anti-microbial, relieves pain. Especially useful if the ear drum has ruptured and internal drops are not appropriate.
Make a blend of the following: lemon balm, catnip, ginger, licorice, spearmint, and chamomile and pour 4 cups of boiling water over 3 tsp of the blend. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Infants take 1 tsp tea 3-4 times a day. Older children approximately 1/2 cup 3-4 times a day. Tea should be warm but not hot.