In my pediatric and family practice, ear infections (clinically called otitis media) are one of the most common acute conditions seen in children. While there are several variations on the theme of otitis media, infection of the eardrum due to a bacterial infection is the most common. What follows then, is that the conventional treatment for ear infection is invariably an antibiotic prescription. In this article, I will discuss the reason why antibiotics are often not an effective treatment for ear infections, with the exception of the most advanced and severe cases, and that for the run-of-the-mill otitis media, antibiotics can ultimately make the problem worse.
To begin we must establish an understanding of our relationship with bacteria and the roles that bacteria play in our bodies. Our gut contains trillions of bacteria. It is estimated that there are more bacteria living in our gut than we have human cells in our body! It’s true: we are in fact more bacteria than we are human cells. In a healthy individual, the majority of these bacteria are “friendly”, which ultimately keeps any potentially harmful bacterial colonies in check. These friendly bacteria also serve us in other important ways. They are responsible for assisting in the proper breakdown and digestion of food. These gut bacteria also aid in the production of some important vitamins. And perhaps most importantly, these bacteria are responsible for the maintenance of a healthy, well-educated immune system.
Antibiotic drugs do not discriminate between friendly and unfriendly bacteria. During a course of antibiotics, not only are the bacteria associated with ear infections affected, but also the friendly and important bacteria are killed. The consequences of using antibiotics are invariably a disrupted gut flora, which has direct effects on the digestive tract, and ultimately has the potential to decrease the efficiency of the immune system. I’ve seen this play out clinically many times: The ear infection begins to resolve after antibiotics, only to return two to four weeks later with greater severity. Parents will often continue to follow doctor’s advice, giving their children a stronger antibiotic course, and the cycle continues. What results is a very significant gut dysbiosis-the establishment of an unhealthy gut flora where friendly bacteria are the minority and potentially harmful bacteria and yeast are gaining in numbers. Again, this has very significant effects on digestion, increasing potential for yeast infections and allergies, and will result in a less effective immune system overall.
I have seen great success with ear infections by taking a different approach: Address underlying factors that may be undermining the body’s ability to prevent and heal ear infections on its own, while simultaneously enhancing the immune system’s ability to do what it already knows how to do. The first area to address is diet. Every parent of children with ongoing ear infections receives this advice: Eliminate all dairy and sweets for the time being. Sometimes this advice alone, especially if the child’s body does not agree with cow’s milk, is enough to allow the body to clear up an infected ear. Next is a prescription for a high potency probiotic, like acidophilus and bifidobacterium of varying strains. I prefer probiotic supplements that also contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS), as this helps the friendly bacteria get going in the gut. Secondly, every child receives an herbal prescription of herbs that will enhance the immune system’s ability to clear an infection. Hydrotherapy, the alternating of hot and cold compresses over the ear, and over the lymphatic glands below the ear, helps to improve blood and lymph circulation, expediting recovery. Finally, I will prescribe a homeopathic remedy that fits the picture of the particular type of ear infection, which also stimulates the body’s self healing capacity. Occasionally, I’ll recommend an herbal ear drop, but only if there is no perforation of the eardrum from the infection. For this and other reasons it is always preferable to include a holistically minded physician in the treatment of your children for otitis media.