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Ear Infections Hurt!

by Muir Ferdun, L.Ac.

Lots of children get ear infections.

No, really, LOTS of children. It's the most common reason for non-routine doctor visits in the under-4-years-old set.

So, here's the drill. You see your child start getting grumpy, pulling at her ear, rubbing a cheek, running a fever without much nasal congestion, or not quite getting over a cold. Could be teething, but you suspect ears. You struggle through a couple of rough nights, and finally you go to the doctor. The doctor looks, decides that the ear is infected, and gives you a course of antibiotics. And maybe the infection doesn't quite clear up, or it comes back again too soon, so you're off for another round of antibiotics.

But you know there are risks to repeated courses of antibiotics, including bacteria that are resistant to more and more of our best drugs, and, of course, the gut upset that comes from killing off all the friendly bacteria as well as the evil ones.

Resistant bacteria are not reserved for hospitals and horror movies; in fact, the next ear infection that your child has may be resistant to the last antibiotic you used, and it may take a higher or longer dose to clear up. This antibiotic resistance is partly why your doctor will start talking about placing drainage tubes through the eardrum to allow the fluid to drain…and stop getting so infected.

Tubes work, sort of. First of all, you have to get your mind around surgery, usually general anesthesia, for your little one. Then, know that the tubes will be ejected by the body in its attempt to heal the eardrum. This process might take six months to a year, but that sounds like a welcome relief for the sleepless families experiencing one infection after another all fall and winter. And tubes are probably healthier than months and months of on-again, off-again antibiotics.

But this procedure begs the question: My child's body has a natural drainage tube built in (the Eustachian tube); why don't we get that cleared instead of adding another tube? And why can't my child fight off infections like other children can?

There has to be a better way, doesn't there?

The good news is yes, there are other options. But first, I have to tell you a dirty little secret, one that no one really wants to tell you: You either have an ear infection-prone child, or you don't. Maybe it's genetics; maybe it's anatomy; probably it's a combination of things, but the truth is that some children will get lots of ear infections, and some will get few or none. This isn't fair. But if you have that child who is prone to ear infections, you're going to spend a considerable amount of energy working on solutions, traditional or non-traditional. You'll need to spend time to find the combination of things that her body needs to be able to fight off these infections and keep her system running optimally.

I want to tell you a little about the anatomy we're dealing with. The kind of ear infections we are talking about are otitis media, or middle ear infections, which means infections behind the eardrum. This area is an almost-closed cavity, with only a tiny tube (the Eustachian tube) connecting it with the back of the nose, just above the soft palate. This tube can become blocked by nose and throat congestion, leaving a warm, dark place where bacteria like to grow.

In a healthy system, the blockage and infection in the ear clear when the body flushes the area with more fluid/mucus, turns up the heat a little (runs a fever), and sends in some immune cells to kill the bacteria. If the body is not able to perform this process well, the area behind the eardrum fills with fluid; the eardrum bulges and may even tear slightly to relieve the pressure.

Although every child is unique, there are many things that you can try that help the vast majority of children. Remember, some children are more prone to ear infections than others, and if you have one of those children, you may have to provide lots of extra support. Your friends, who have the not-so-prone children, may be able to get away with not doing any of these things, and their children will still have no trouble. If you have an in-the-middle child (who gets 1-2 ear infections a year), you may have to be diligent just during cold season, or just when he has a bug.

Things that reduce the risks of ear infections are:

  • Breastfeeding as long as possible.
  • Not letting your child breathe second-hand smoke.
  • Not letting your child use a pacifier past one year old, or drink from a bottle while lying down.
  • Eliminating the foods that thicken the oral mucus (dairy products including milk and cheese), soy, and gluten grains like wheat.
  • Limiting your child's exposure to sick children.
  • Making sure your child gets enough sleep.

Once your child has a cold or a potential ear infection, give her lots of clear fluids. Apply warm compresses on the cheek and ear area. Massage the outer ear and scalp surrounding the ear. Be extra-vigilant with diet. All of these measures work better the earlier you start, before the ear is really troublesome. As the infection advances, it gets harder and harder to treat at home.

If these measures are not enough, or you feel overwhelmed just thinking about where to start, CranioSacral therapy and Chinese Medicine can help.

I have worked with many children (and their parents!) who are struggling with chronic ear infections. The good news is, they all improve! I can help you to identify what specific foods are creating unnecessary congestion, teach you massage techniques to help un-clog the ear area, or let you hold your child while I do a gentle, loving treatment to help her ears. I am used to working on wiggly bodies, and I would be delighted to chase your toddler around the room to look into his ears. When additional support is called for, I use the highest-quality natural herbal and homeopathic remedies to relieve the infection, swelling and pain, and to build up the depleted immune system. The great thing is that you, as the parent, get to watch, participate, and decide what tools you feel comfortable with for treating your child.

Finally, as a parent, I need to say I am here to support you in the choices you make for your child's health. There is no one way through this maze of information and choices. I would like to help you, and I believe I can. Success may be counted in fewer colds this winter than last, a reduction in the number of ear infections that require antibiotics, or maybe in no ear infections this winter at all!

If you have concerns about your child's ears, or other health concerns regarding your infant or child, please call me to schedule an appointment before the cold season gets underway. Of course, I am glad to meet with you when your child is sick, but it's so much less stressful to have a plan in place before you need it. My office number is (503) 701-8766, and my email is muirferdun@yahoo.com.

I look forward to partnering with you towards better health for your little ones.

Kwan-Yin Healing Arts Center, 2330 NW Flanders Suite #101, Portland, OR 97210, USA

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