Naturopathic Medicine for Ear Infections in Children
Except for the common cold, ear infections are the single most common disease among young children. Infections of the middle ear are called otitis media. Otitis media is responsible for an average of thirty million doctor visits per year in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 75% of children have at least one ear infection by the time they are three years old. Of that percentage, half will have had three or more ear infections by the time they reach age three. The most common symptom of an ear infection is pain (an “ear ache”), although fever, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness may also be present. Although common and very unpleasant, ear infections seldom have serious, long-term consequences. Allopathic physicians tend to treat ear infections with antibiotics, which kill the bacteria that cause an ear infection, but naturopathic practitioners offer other natural options for treating otitis media.
What Naturopathic Treatments Are Available for Ear Infections?
A naturopathic physician might recognize that treatment with antibiotics will probably resolve the symptoms of an ear infection, primarily the pain and discomfort. But a treatment with drugs may not—and probably will not—resolve the basic body imbalances that were responsible for the infection in the first place. In such a case, the problem may only reoccur again later. The goal of naturopathy, then, is discover the fundamental problems in a child’s life that predisposes him or her to ear infections and to make such changes as will resolve those problems.
A common problem that leads to ear infections is an inadequate diet that includes too much sugar, starch, dairy products, and other foods that provide the nutrients on which bacteria feed. A child may also be allergic to certain foods that may increase his or her susceptibility to ear (and other types of) infections. Among the most common foods responsible for allergic reactions are dairy products, wheat, eggs, citrus fruits, soy, corn, and peanuts. One step in naturopathic therapy, then, is to eliminate foods from the child’s diet that can lead to ear infections in the first place.
A second step is to augment his or her diet with natural products that will strengthen the immune system and bring the body into balance so that it is better able to fight off infections by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other disease-causing organisms. Some supplements that are believed to improve the immune system and prevent infections are the herbs echinacea (Echinacea pallida var. angustifolia) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis); essential fatty acids, which can be given in pure form or in the form of flaxseed, walnut, cod liver, or some other nutritious oil; and vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and zinc. Some preparations can be applied directly to the infected ear. For example, a few drops of garlic or mullein flower oil added to the ear helps fight the infection and relieves the pain associated with it.
Naturopathic practitioners may also recommend the use of hydrotherapy for the treatment of ear infections. Hydrotherapy involves in the use of water in some form or another to treat a medical condition. In the case of an ear infection, hot and cold moist compresses can be placed on the ear to increase the flow of lymph (cellular fluid that when filtered through the lymph nodes becomes lymph and empties back into the blood) and enhancing the body’s natural immune response in this part of the body.
In some instances, the best treatment for an ear infection may be no treatment at all. Some research has shown that 80 percent of children who are not treated with antibiotics for an ear infection get better on their own within about a week. The body’s natural ability to cure itself is sufficient in these cases to resolve the problem without the assistance of medical experts.
Naturopathic treatments to strengthen the body during this period may, however, be helpful. Ear infections that do not respond to naturopathic treatments or do not resolve on their own within a short time, however, should be referred to an allopathic physician since they may, in rare cases, progress to more serious health problems, such as meningitis and mastoiditis (infection of the bone structure directly behind the ear).
What is Naturopathic Medicine?
Naturopathy is a method of treating physical and mental disorders that has been practiced for thousands of years. The goal of naturopathic medicine is to use natural materials and methods to aid the body in healing itself by strengthening the immune system and restoring the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, and other essential components of the body. Naturopaths use a wide variety of techniques in their work, including herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, hydrotherapy, exercise therapy, physical therapy, massage and manipulation, acupuncture, and lifestyle counseling. Interest in naturopathic medicine has grown at least partly because of concerns about the possible overuse and potential risks of synthetic chemicals and intrusive surgeries that, in some cases, may produce results that are worse than the diseases and disorders which they were designed to cure.
What Causes an Ear Infection?
Of the three parts of the ear—the outer ear, inner ear, and middle ear—the middle ear is most susceptible to infection. The middle ear is involved not only in the process of hearing, but also in maintaining one’s equilibrium (balance). To help carry out these functions, the middle ear is connected to the back of the throat by means of a passage called the eustachian tube. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked (as it does during an allergy attack or an upper respiratory infection), the fluids may collect in the inner ear. Those fluids provide an ideal environment for bacteria, which may collect and grow there, causing the symptoms associated with otitis media.
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Bubis, Eugene, ND. “Why do our children get chronic ear infections? The naturopathic perspective.” 2005. [cited September 3, 2008].
Chaitow, Leon. Naturopathic Physical Medicine: Theory and Practice for Manual Therapists and Naturopaths. Oxford, UK: Churchill Livingstone, 2008.