We’ve all known that poor girl who had to have tubes put in her ears.  Or that poor boy who’s taken more rounds of antibiotics than his weary parents can count.   Ear fluid buildup, and ear infections, are all too common for children.   Tubes and antibiotics, though sometimes necessary, are over-prescribed by well-meaning doctors.  Is there a naturopathic solution?

(NOTE:  this article addresses middle ear infections, not outer ear infections, or “swimmer’s ear” as they are commonly called.)

Why Do Kids Get So Many Ear Infections?  The main reason is anatomy.  Adults have ear canals that slant down towards the nose and mouth to facilitate fluid drainage.  Children’s ear canals are nearly horizontal, making fluid drainage much more challenging.  Any fluid that develops in the inner ear tends to pool there.  This is not water from the pool or the shower; this is fluid that the body produces behind the ear drum.

Another factor is just that children get sick a lot.  Their immune systems are immature, so they become ill from a high percentage of the bugs they encounter.  Once they are older, their immune systems recognize repeat offenders and can ward them off.  As long as they are young and getting sick all the time, they have a higher chance of coming down with an ear-loving bug.  Also, infections lead to excess fluid and mucus, along with inflammation and swelling of the nose, mouth, and ear tissues, and the immune tissues associated with them, making drainage even more difficult.

Why Does the Body Produce Fluid In the Ear?  Ear fluid is produced for the same reason mucus is produced.  It’s the body saying “Hey, I recognize an intruder here, and I’m going to mount an immune response to it.”  That intruder is often a bacteria or virus.  Sometimes the intruder is part of an upper respiratory tract infection, or a common cold, so your child will develop a runny nose and cough, and then complain of ear pain.  Sometimes the bacteria come into the ear and cause only ear symptoms.  And sometimes, the fluid is a sign that the body is having a food reaction.  Food reactions can manifest in many different ways, but over-production of ear fluid and mucus is a common way.

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What Do Ear Infections and Ear Fluid Have To Do With Each Other?  They are not mutually inclusive: you can have one without the other.  However, a child who tends to have fluid build up will be more likely to have ear infections.  It’s a mechanical issue: any bacteria present in the ear become trapped by the fluid and flourish.  Also, a child who had an ear infection and is recovering will likely have some residual fluid.

How Do I Know If My Child Has an Ear Infection?  You may not know; sometimes parents bring their child in for a wellness check, or just because she seems a little off, and get a surprise diagnosis of ear infection.  Sometimes they bring the child in for a cold, and get the additional diagnosis of ear infection.  General symptoms include fever, fluid drainage (if the ear drum has ruptured), fussiness, poor sleep, headache, and loss of appetite.  The classic symptoms of ear tugging and ear pain do not tend to show up in younger children.

What’s The Full Story About Ear Fluid?  As mentioned above, ear fluid is a product of the immune system.  It can form in response to an ear infection, and it can contribute to an ear infection.  It can also occur as a result of a food reaction.  If it drains relatively quickly, you may never notice it.  If it persists, it can cause irritating symptoms such as ear fullness, ear popping, reduced ability to hear, and poor balance.  (If you have ever been in a plane around the time you had a cold or allergies, you may have noticed your ears alternately filling up and popping.)  Over time, reduced hearing ability can lead to delayed speech development.  Excess fluid buildup can also cause an eardrum rupture.  A child with significant fluid buildup, especially in the presence of decreased hearing, may eventually require ear tubes.  Ear tubes are placed through the ear drum to facilitate fluid drainage.

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What Else Contributes To Fluid Buildup and Ear Infections?  

  • exposure to cigarette smoke
  • drinking while lying on the back
  • environmental allergies
  • lack of breastfeeding

Treatments For Ear Fluid Buildup:  Often, a child has perpetual ear fluid because of a food sensitivity.  Dairy is the most common culprit, but it could be any food.  I do not recommend attempting to eliminate multiple foods from your child’s diet without professional guidance.  However, eliminating just one suspect food, such as dairy, for a trial period, is a reasonable option.  Just be sure you replace the nutrients lost by eliminating that food.  Craniosacral Therapy (CST) is a form of energy work that children, especially children with excessive ear fluid, respond well to.  

Treatments For Ear Infections:  Acute ear infections often respond well to two natural treatments: garlic mullein ear oil drops and warm onion ear muff. However, some ear infections do require antibiotics.  The herbs in garlic mullein ear drops are antimicrobial and reduce pain.  You should never put anything in the ear without a doctor’s approval, in case your child has a ruptured ear drum.  The warm onion ear muff is soothing, pain relieving, and antimicrobial.  Simply cut an onion in half, steam or microwave until the juices are visible on the surface.  Cover the onion with a cheese cloth to reduce the mess, and place the warm onion on the ear.  Keep it there for 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as possible.  If your child’s doctor diagnoses an ear infection, always probe for more details by asking questions like: “How severe is it? Does it require antibiotics, and if so, why?  Can we watch and wait?  Is the eardrum ruptured?  Is there significant fluid buildup?”  For repeat ear infections, your child might need some immune support, and you should determine if she has excess fluid.  My basic immune support protocol is outlined here, in my personal blog, and includes vitamin D, fish oil, and probiotics.  If that level of immune support is not enough, then I typically add bone broth and elderberry syrup.  Of course, if your child does require antibiotics, you should give probiotics along with them, and for two to four weeks after.

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Teresa Neff
Teresa Neff
Dr. Teresa specializes in pediatric and adolescent medicine and women’s health. After earning her doctorate from Bastyr University, she spent over two years at The Kids Clinic, in north Seattle, first as a medical resident, and then as a staff physician. At The Kids Clinic, she became comfortable managing urgent acute matters as well as chronic health concerns. Dr. Teresa loves combining her life long love of teaching children with her passion for natural medicine. As a primary care provider, she offers well child exams, well woman exams, sports physicals, lab studies, vaccines and vaccine education. In addition, she uses the various tools of naturopathic medicine, including Craniosacral Therapy, Visceral Manipulation, and Classical Homeopathy, among others, to build healthy foundations and to promote health and empower her patients. Dr. Teresa also studied breastfeeding and lactation with the Simkin Center and holds a certificate as a Certified Lactation Educator (CLE). Having experienced the struggles and the joys of breastfeeding herself, she is happy to help moms establish or continue breastfeeding. Dr. Teresa sees patients at Seattle Nature Cure Clinic in Seattle, Washington. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Neff in Seattle, Washington

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