Ear infections, medically know as acute otitis media (AOM) are one of the most commonly seen complaints in a pediatric practice. Acute ear infection is one of the leading cause of antibiotic prescription in the United States contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria (1). Not only does antibiotic use contribute to the emergence of these super bugs, but they also can have incredibly deleterious effects on our gut flora (microbiota). Changes in our microbiome are associated with a wide range of conditions from IBS to eczema and weight gain, just to name a few.
The frustrating thing is that a study published in 2016 by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 30% of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary (2). That’s a lot. Although I can respect that antibiotics can be lifesaving, I also believe that if given the proper alternative medicine tools, we could eliminate that 30% of unnecessary antibiotic use. This is especially true for ear infections because there is often a viral connection which may not respond to antibiotics (1). So I wanted to tackle this issue and arm you with some natural treatments to have on hand if you, your child or a loved one get an ear infection. I’ve found these natural treatments to be very effective in my patients.
Before we get started, I want to briefly discuss chronic ear infections. Chronic ear infection refers both to an ear infection that does not heal as well as a recurring ear infection. These are also incredibly common in children and some adults. The conventional approach to chronic ear infections is to repeatedly use antibiotics and/or place tubes in the ear drum to allow them to drain. However, chronic ear infections are a sign of an underlying issues. This could be a weakened immune system, or even food allergies (3). Even if the child is breast feeding, they could be allergic to a food their mother is eating. Although the below treatments can be effective in these cases as well, I encourage you to work with a naturopathic or functional medicine practitioner to uncover and address the root cause of chronic ear infections.
Here are my top natural remedies for ear infections:
Herbal ear drops: Look for one that has any combination of garlic, mullein, st. john’s wort, or calendula. These herbs are anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. I like these ones. Drop 5 drops directly into the ear canal 2-3 x per day. To make it more comfortable, heat the oil by putting the bottle in a glass of warm/hot water for several minutes.
Onion poultice: Now here is an old school natural remedy. Heat up a slice of onion (anywhere from 1/2-1 inch thick) by any means available to you. You can bake it, sauté it, or put it in the microwave. You want it to be aromatic but not so hot you can't touch it. Place the onion in a thin piece of cloth and place on the affected ear for 5-10 minutes or until it cools. You can repeat this throughout the day. Onions have antimicrobial effects and the warmth/steam soothes ear pain.
Gargling with warm salt water: Often times ear aches and infections develop because the back of the throat is infected or inflamed so the eustachian tube can’t drain. Warm salt water acts as an astringent to the back of the throat so the eustachian tubes can drain. Gargle for 30-60 seconds and spit. Do this 2-3 x per day and pair this remedy with the above herbal drops or onion poultice.
Foods to avoid:
-Dairy increases mucus production and should be avoided with any ear infection, cold, flu and upper respiratory infection.
-Sugar suppresses the immune system and will delay recovery
If antibiotics are required then please, please, please take probiotics during and for at least two weeks after the antibiotic.