Food allergies cause ear infections

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SAN FRANCISCO--Over the years, allergist Talal Nsouli noticed something strange about the children he treated for food allergies. Many had had chronic ear infections or hearing loss. He began to wonder: Could allergies be causing their ear problems?

Intrigued, Nsouli and his colleagues at Georgetown University School of Medicine gave three standard allergy tests to 104 children to check for sensitivities to a variety of foods, including milk, wheat, eggs, and peanuts. The children ranged in age from 18 months to nine years, and all had had either a three-month bout with otitis media, an inflammation of the middle ear, or had repeated episodes over a period of five months.

The tests turned up 81 children with allergies, most of them to milk or wheat. For the next four months, these children were fed meals free of the offending foods; 70 got better. The foods were then added back, and within four months, 66 children got ear infections again--strong evidence that allergies and ear infections are linked.

Food allergies, says Nsouli, are known to cause nasal congestion. But he's found that they also cause congestion in the eustachian tubes, connecting the nose to the ears. When this happens, a vacuum develops in the middle ear, sucking in fluid, which collects behind the eardrum, preventing it from vibrating. The result is hearing loss.

Nsouli suggests that parents whose children have persistent ear infections ask their pediatricians about allergy testing. "Doctors usually treat ear infections with antibiotics, or sometimes a surgically implanted shunt to drain the fluid," he says. "But if the child has allergies, these treatments won't solve the problem."

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By Benedict Carey, Patricia Long and Michael Mason

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