Each year many young children are diagnosed with middle ear infections – or otitis media.  Typical symptoms that occur with otits media include fever, ear ache and irritability. Many times these infections become recurrent and parents are forced to make several trips to the child’s physician to get treatment.  Parents often want to decrease their child’s suffering and may be quick to administer antibiotics to do so.  Although the use of antibiotics is warranted in some situations, they often do not address the root cause of the problem.  The use of antibiotics can leave the child more susceptible to other types of infections as bacteria become resistant to drugs.  Side effects of antibiotics can include digestive upset leading to diarrhea, gas and tummy ache.  In many instances, the ear infection is not due to bacteria, but due to a virus, which antibiotics will not be useful in eliminating.

Fluid Build Up

Bacteria and viruses need a specific media in which they can grow, reproduce and cause symptoms associated with ear infections.  The media is provided by the environment of the ear.  Structurally, children are more susceptible to mucus and fluid build up in their ears because their eustachian tube – a canal between the middle ear and the back of the throat – is shorter and more horizontal than in adults.  The structure of the eustachian tube may prevent proper drainage of fluid, especially if there is any mucus already present in the tube.  Mucus provides a good environment for bacterial or viral reproduction which leads to inflammation of the middle ear.  This in turn creates the symptoms associated with the ear infections and discomfort to the little ones.

Instead of blaming bacteria or viruses as the cause of the infection, naturopathic medicine looks at the underlying susceptibility to mucus build up and infection as the root cause that needs to be addressed.  In other words, the internal environment in the child provides a terrain where bacteria and viruses can reproduce and give rise to infection.   With this model the questions that are raised are 1) what is causing increased mucus build up in the ear and ear structures?  and 2) why is the child’s immune system not able to resist the bacterial or viral infection?

Why Fluid and Mucus Build Up

Mucus and fluid build up the ear can occur as a result of several factors.  It could be that the ear infection occurred after a bout of cold or flu symptoms.  The child could also be suffering from sinusitis that has made its way over to the ear.  In these cases the immune system of the child needs to be strengthened.  This can be achieved by using select botanical medicines and homeopathic remedies that strengthen the child’s vitality.  In other cases the child may have food allergies that are contributing to excessive mucus production.  The common food allergies include dairy, wheat products containing gluten, soy products and some nuts.  Although blood tests can identify specific food allergens, often elimination of the offending food group for a period of time resolves reoccurrence of ear infections.  In addition dietary elimination of sugar is beneficial in all cases, as sugar decreases the function of the immune system and provides a growing medium for many types of bacteria.  Sugar is the main breakdown product of simple carbohydrates such as bread, pastries, cookies, sweets and soft drinks.

Preventing Ear Infections

There are several steps parents can take to prevent ear infections before they become a problem.  The child’s diet is key to any prevention plan. Breast-feeding your child is recommended exclusively for the first six months and then until the child is at least 1 years old.   This provides the infant with the necessary anti-bodies to deal with infections and allows for the proper development of the immune system.  Proper introduction of foods is important in minimizing the development of food allergies.  Once the child has been introduced to foods other than breast milk, consuming fruits and vegetables high in vitamin A, C and flavinoids such as kale, sweet potatoes and berries helps to build a robust immune system.

Natural Treatment for Ear Infections

Once an infection process starts, there are still options available for treatment with naturopathic medicine.  Acute infection can be alleviated with ear oil containing a combination of garlic, mullein, calendula or other anti-bacterial and anti-viral botanicals.  Lymphatic massage of the neck may be helpful in increasing circulation to the area and thus helps to break up mucus.  Homeopathic medicines work very well with children and infants in relieving symptoms as well in improving mood and sleep without any side effects.  If antibiotics are used, it is important to also supplement with probiotics – or good bacteria – to repopulate the digestive tract and prevent or minimize side effects associated with antibiotic use.

In all cases of possible ear infections parents should contact a qualified health professional to make sure that the ear infection is properly managed and the child’s condition is monitored.  Naturopathic medicine offers gentle and effective treatment strategies to treat ear infections and to recognize and address underlying causes that contribute to ear infections.   Consult a Naturopathic Physician to further discuss prevention and treatment options for your child’s health concerns.

Dr.  Agnieszka Matusik, ND is a Naturopathic Physician practicing family medicine in Kerrisdale and Kitsilano communities of Vancouver.  For more information contact her at drmatusik@gmail.com.