The smartest way to sideline an ear infection

Autumn is a happy season for most people — the days are warm, the evenings are crisp and cool, and the leaves start to change. It’s an especially exciting time of year for kids, too, with school back in session and the holidays right around the corner. But as a child, fall meant one thing for me — and it wasn’t fun: earaches.

Almost inevitably, come October or November, I was stuck at home on antibiotics and ear drops for an ear infection. (And I hated missing school — weird for a kid, I know.)

Of course, I know a lot now that I didn’t know then. Like the fact that I was in good company, for starters — ear infections are incredibly common among young children. About one in every four kids will have at least one bout of otitis media (the technical term for a middle ear infection) by the time they turn ten.

But my time practicing medicine has also made me more aware of another, bigger threat that accompanies ear infections. I’m talking, of course, about the epidemic proportions of antibiotic overuse — and the serious trouble this dangerous trend has caused.

I’ve been telling my patients for years that most ear infections don’t require antibiotics to get better (I wrote extensively about this topic in my first book,
Feed Your Kids Well). But, as with almost everything else in that book, my advice was clearly ahead of its time. And not many people were willing to listen to it.

So I was thrilled to see a new study come out validating my long-held stance. Hopefully, it’s enough to make doctors think twice before handing out prescriptions — and make parents think twice before asking for them.

The British National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is now advising that, most of the time, waiting out an ear infection with over-the-counter pain relief is a better alternative than jumping straight on the antibiotic train.

Why? Because a review of all available evidence showed that in 60 percent of otitis media cases, kids’ symptoms improve within 24 hours, even without antibiotics. Which means that holding off on treatment for just one day could spare your child a ten-day course of unnecessary medication.

The pain and pressure from ear infections usually eases up after a few days. If it doesn’t — and especially in the case of ruptured eardrum, resulting in fluid leakage — then antibiotics are worth considering. (But they still aren’t always 100 percent necessary. It’s important to understand that ear infections can sometimes take as long as a week to clear up.)

Treating the pain — and yes, they can be rather painful — is the most effective strategy in the meantime. But keep in mind that over-the-counter pain medication isn’t your only option here either. (And as you know by now, there are plenty of reasons to avoid it if you can.)

Curcumin, MSM, or any number of wonderful anti-inflammatory nutritional supplements can help your child get some much-needed relief while his or her immune system does its job fighting the infection.

Obviously, kids who really need antibiotics should still get them. But clearly, most don’t. This is something both parents and doctors need to understand — especially given all of the antibiotic-resistant bugs running around out there.

So when it comes to treating your child’s ear infections, practice a day or so of patience, use common sense and natural remedies, and give their body a chance to fight back before rushing to fill that prescription.