Treating Children's ear infections Without Drugs Or Tubes


Otitis media, the medical term for inflammation of the inner ear, is one of the most common health problems in children, exceeded only by colds and sore throats. By age two, nearly a third of all children will have had three or more episodes. The annual cost of diagnosing and treating this condition in the U.S. is more than $2 billion.

"Otitis" means inflammation of the ear and "media" refers to the middle ear. There are two main types of otitis media: The acute type (the classic acute ear infection) is diagnosed when there is fluid in the middle ear accompanied by pain, bulging of the eardrum, or drainage of pus. Otitis media with effusion (OME, also called serous otitis media) refers to fluid in the middle ear without signs or symptoms of an ear infection. OME tends to be a more chronic problem, often persisting for many months.

Acute ear infections are usually treated with antibiotics, although such infections will often run their course without treatment. Doctors disagree about whether long-term antibiotic therapy is advisable for children who suffer from recurrent ear infections. Although such treatment does prevent recurrences, the benefits are limited, since only one child in nine improves.

There is even more controversy over whether tubes should be put in the ears of children with chronic OME. The purpose of these tubes is to allow the pressure to equilibrate on both sides of the eardrum, thereby improving hearing and preventing problems with speech development and learning. However, putting a hole in the eardrum also provides an avenue through which bacteria can enter the middle ear. In addition, recent evidence has shown that the improvement in hearing lasts only six months and that, in the long run, putting tubes in the ears might actually make hearing worse. Furthermore, there is no good research showing that chronic OME causes any kind of permanent problem. Nevertheless, most experts still recommend using tubes, even though they admit their opinion is not backed up by scientific research.


Fortunately, there are nutritional alternatives that are usually effective. We have found that restricting or eliminating refined sugar from the diet often reduces the incidence of ear infections and effusions. That may be because eating sweets directly suppresses the immune system. In one study, healthy young adults drank 24 ounces of a cola beverage, containing about 66 grams (g) of sucrose. Within 45 minutes, the ability of their white blood cells to engulf bacteria dropped by about 50 percent. Other scientists found that ingesting 100 g of some other sugars, including glucose, fructose, honey and even orange juice, had a similar effect. This decline in immune function is greatest about two hours after consuming sugar and it persists for at least five hours. In another study, the ability of rats to manufacture antibodies declined 50 percent when the diet contained as little as 10 percent sucrose. Larger amounts of sugar impaired antibody production even more.

Some children appear to be more sensitive than others to the effects of sugar. In those cases, even small amounts will cause problems. I suspect that eating sweets has several different effects on the body, depending both on the amount consumed and on individual susceptibility to sugar.

Another way sugar affects immunity is by depleting the nutrients needed to support a healthy immune system. Sugar provides no vitamins or minerals at all; therefore, if your diet contains 10 percent sugar (the average amount found in the American diet), you will be getting about 19 percent less vitamin C, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6, folic acid and other key nutrients. Since each of these nutrients plays a role in immune function, deficiencies might render you more susceptible to infections or allergies.

Small amounts of sugar probably have little direct effect on the immune system or on the nutritional status of healthy children. However, some children are ["allergic"] to sugar and cannot tolerate even small quantities.


Food allergy [or intolerance] is probably the most important and definitely the most frequently overlooked factor in children who suffer from recurrent ear infections or chronic OME. In our experience, at least 75 percent of children with these problems have marked improvements after the offending foods are identified and removed from their diet. As with other food allergic conditions, the most common symptom-evoking foods are sugar, dairy products, wheat, corn, eggs, citrus fruits and chocolate.

I typically recommend an elimination diet, in which all of the common allergens are avoided simultaneously. In most cases, the symptoms improve or disappear within three weeks. At that point, foods are tested individually, watching for recurrences of symptoms with each food challenge.

Several years ago, I saw a three-year-old girl who had had two years of persistent ear problems despite continuous antibiotic therapy. She cleared up completely after two weeks on an elimination diet. However, within 20 minutes of testing corn she was crying from ear pain; within 60 minutes pus was coming out of her ear. The removal of corn from her diet eliminated her ear problems, and she has remained free of infections for five years.

Doctors who say that food allergy is not a scientifically documented cause of otitis media have not been keeping up with the medical literature. A relationship between food allergy and OME was reported as early as 1942. More recently, Italian researchers provided evidence that allergy causes the Eustachian tubes to swell, thereby blocking the outflow of fluid from the middle ear.

A new study has confirmed what innovative practitioners have been saying for a long time. Of 104 children with OME, 78 percent tested positive for food allergies. Excluding the offending foods from the diet for 11 weeks led to significant improvement in 70 to 81 children. Subsequent challenges with suspected foods led to a flare-up of otitis in 66 of the 70 children. This report confirms our own impression that the vast majority of children with chronic OME improve significantly when attention is given to food allergy.


Nutritionists frequently recommend supplements to help fight infections and allergic conditions. Vitamin C is particularly useful; not only does it stimulate the immune system but it also has an antihistamine effect. Zinc and vitamin A also enhance immune function and help fight infections.

Although no studies have specifically addressed the effect of these nutrients on acute otitis media or OME, it has been shown that elderly people who take nutritional supplements have about half as many infections. Presumably, they have lower levels of vitamins and minerals than do younger people.

Children with recurrent ear problems are also likely to have nutritional deficiencies. Continually having to fight infections and allergic reactions probably puts stress on a child's nutritional status. Furthermore, ingesting allergenic foods may cause damage to the stomach and small intestine, resulting in reduced absorption of vitamins and minerals. Supplementing with a broad-spectrum, hypoallergenic multiple vitamin and mineral is, therefore, a good idea for most children with chronic ear problems. It may also be helpful to take additional zinc and vitamins A and C.

In summary, scientific research and clinical experience have shown that dietary changes, combined in some cases with nutritional supplements, are an effective treatment for children suffering from recurrent otitis media. Doctors who ignore these simple, nontoxic treatments and emphasize instead antibiotics and surgical implantation of tubes are certainly achieving less than optimal results, and are exposing their patients to needless risk and expense. Hopefully, the day will come soon when doctors stop putting small children under general anesthesia and cutting holes in their eardrums. We are certain that if they would take a closer look at the nutritional approach, there would be far less need for those procedures.

Natural Way Publications, Inc.


By Alan Gaby

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