When the little one wakes up with a mild fever, tugging at his ear, most parents assume (often correctly) — it’s an ear infection! So, like all good parents do, they quickly make a doctor’s appointment to get a prescription for antibiotics, to take care of that nasty infection fast.
Is this really the best way to handle ear infections? Are there natural ways to treat them successfully?
Here’s what you really need to know about ear infections.
The Truth About Ear Infections
Ear infections are incredibly common. Most children will have experienced at least one by the time they are 5 years old. Some children get them repeatedly, and they are a top reason for doctors’ visits every year.
There are different types of ear infections. It’s possible to have fluid in the ear without pain/symptoms, which usually requires no treatment. A middle ear infection can be caused by bacteria or viruses, and often resolves within 2 – 3 days without any treatment. The CDC currently recommends waiting those 2 – 3 days to see if the ear pain or infection resolves before resorting to antibiotics (source). Up to 82% of children will get better within a few days with or without treatment, and treatment increases the risk of gut-related side effects (source).
Depending on the severity of the infection, the ear drum can perforate (or burst). This happens in anywhere from 5 – 30% of cases. When it does, it is not considered a medical emergency (unless the child has a high fever or is in extreme pain), and in 85% of cases, it heals fine on its own (source). There is no increase in complications if antibiotics are not used (source).
In general, ear infections are not serious. Hearing loss as a complication is extremely rare, and typically mild, and only occurs after recurrent ear infections (source).
Risks for ear infections include:
- Age (<5 years old)
- Male sex
- Ethnicity (white)
- Low birth weight (<2.5 kg)
- Premature birth (<37 weeks gestation)
- Pacifier use
- Season of birth (spring/summer)
- Lack of breastfeeding
- Day care attendance
- Number of siblings
- Parental education/employment (lower socioeconomic groups)
- Household income (below poverty level)
- Personal and family history of ear infections
- Prenatal/postnatal exposure to cigarette smoke
How to Treat Ear Infections
From the information above, it’s easy to see that it’s not necessary to run to the doctor to get antibiotics at the first sign of ear pain. It’s better to wait a few days and provide some symptom relief, or use natural remedies, to see if symptoms resolve first. Usually, they will.
It’s actually important to avoid unnecessary antibiotics, because they have a very negative effect on the gut flora, and because using them too frequently contributes to antibiotic resistance. (source)
So, how does a parent treat ear infections at home?
Use garlic-mullein oil (or just mullein oil) in the ear if the ear drum has not burst. Place a few drops in the ear, gently tug on it to get it down in, and let it sit for a few minutes. Then drain, and do on the other ear if needed.
If you prefer, you can also use hydrogen peroxide for this.
Use rosalina, lemon, or fir needle essential oils diluted to 0.5% and rub around the outside of the ear. Spearmint is also safe. These are for young children.
Adults and kids over 10 can also use eucalyptus, rosemary, or peppermint.
Anti-Bacterial Herbal Teas
Drink warm mullein tea (1 tbsp. in 1 cup boiling water, sweetened as desired). Elderberry is also a good choice. Astragalus root is a general immune booster.
We use Elderberry Elixir (a tincture) to help promote immune boosting and knock stuff out quickly.
Warm Salt Socks
Fill a sock with a natural salt, then warm it for a minute in the microwave (or about 10 – 15 min. in the oven). Place this over the affected ear to help draw out the pain.
If more help is needed, chiropractic care may be beneficial. There aren’t enough studies to prove that it is helpful (source) but many parents swear by it.
In general, these remedies will help to reduce pain and relieve symptoms so the ear infection can get better, naturally!
When Is It Serious?
Typically, ear infections will get better on their own, even if the ear drum ends up perforating.
These are signs that you may need to see a doctor:
- Severe pain that natural remedies don’t help
- Very high fever (over 104)
- No improvement after several days
- Lethargy, inability to rest
- Additional symptoms that could be serious (trouble breathing)
Most commonly, it’s not an issue. If you have a serious concern, you can always make a call and see.