ear infections

Ear infections. 2 out of every 3 children will experience this painful condition before their second year, and some will have them repeatedly. Unfortunately, treatment for ear infections isn’t always simple or “one size fits all.” Here’s an overview of common treatments.

Causes of ear infections

An ear infection starts when the normal air passages to the middle ear, particularly the Eustachian tube, are blocked. This is often the result of a typical cold congestion or allergic reaction, though sometimes the structure of a child’s Eustachian tubes themselves may play a role.

This blockage causes fluid to be pulled into the middle ear, behind the eardrum. If bacteria or a virus become trapped in this fluid, it will quickly multiply and cause an ear infection.

Ear infections and antibiotics

Obviously no parent wants to see their child in pain, which is why there’s (understandably) a high demand for a “quick fix” in the form of antibiotics.

However, in February of this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for treating childhood ear infections. They recommended that doctors wait at least 72 hours before prescribing antibiotics.

ear infection antibiotics

Why this forced delay for medication? Well, in the early stages doctors can’t tell whether the cause of the infection is bacterial or viral. Antibiotics only work against bacteria. They are useless against viral infections, which (like a cold) eventually clear up on their own after a few days. The waiting period helps the doctor be sure the ear infection is bacterial and that the antibiotics will work.

It’s not easy to watch a child suffer through an ear infection, and the temptation is to just prescribe antibiotics right away even if it’s not certain they’ll help. But overusing antibiotics this way only decreases their effectiveness the next time, and may actually make a viral infection worse.

So unfortunately, the best practice in the early stages in an infection is just to wait 3 days and see.

Chronic ear infections

Like colds, ear infections are an unpleasant but fairly normal ailment for most children. However, some children are prone to repeated ear infections. In these cases, parents and doctors may start looking for ways to prevent further infection.

The doctor may recommend changes to the child’s environment, such as reducing exposure to cigarette smoke (children exposed to second-hand smoke have a higher incidence of ear infections). There may be habits that can be changed, such as no longer allowing the child to bring a bottle to bed (the mechanics of drinking fluids while lying down can play a role in infections as well).

If several months pass with no improvement, the doctor may recommend surgery to fix a chronic blockage. Tubes may be inserted into the ear to improve the air flow via the Eustachian tube. In more extreme cases, the adenoid (at the back of the throat) may be surgically removed as well.

Chiropractic and chronic ear infections

Can chiropractic help in the prevention of chronic ear infections? The answer is yes—in certain cases. While a chiropractic adjustment can’t heal an existing bacterial or viral infection, it can help the lymph nodes better filter out bacteria and viruses before they reach the middle ear.

Throughout the body, lymph nodes (part of the immune system) trap and filter out bacteria and viruses.  In some cases, a spinal misalignment in the upper neck irritates the connected nerve, which can cause muscle spasms right through the area where the lymph node is. This tension can prevent the node from draining properly—meaning it can’t filter effectively and makes the ear more likely to get infected.

A chiropractic adjustment can fix the alignment issue, causing the muscle to relax and allowing the lymph node to better do its job.

This is what happened with one young patient of ours. A woman brought in her baby, who at 9 months of age had already had 6 ear infections. Dr. Maggio found that the baby’s neck muscles were very tight, causing spasms in the area where the lymph nodes are located. Dr. Maggio only had to do two adjustments before the problem was fixed. The child is now 3 years old and has not had an infection since.

Of course, if the lymph nodes aren’t the cause of the ear infections, there’s very little a chiropractor can do.

Next steps

While childhood ear infections are no fun—for children and parents alike—there isn’t always a quick fix. But if your child is having several infections a year, talk to your pediatrician. You can also have Dr. Maggio take a look to rule out lymph node issues. We would be glad to help your child on the path to feeling better!


Photo credits: Espen Faugstad and somegeekintn via Compfight cc