“Mommy, my ear hurts!”
As we head full swing into cold and flu season, this is a common refrain heard by many parents. In fact, earaches are the #1 reason for visits to the pediatrician’s office, and the most common reason that antibiotics are prescribed for kids.
So, your kid has a fever, he’s grabbing his ear and crying in pain, and you’re wondering – does he need antibiotics?
The first thing to understand is “What’s an ear infection anyway?”
The typical scenario is that your child starts off with a cold with runny nose and congestion. She may even start to get better, then all of a sudden – bam! She wakes up in the middle of the night with a fever, holding her ear and crying in pain.
To diagnose an ear infection (acute otitis media), there has to be a sudden onset of symptoms with fluid in the middle ear, and inflammation (either a red ear drum or pain that interferes with normal activity or sleep). But just because your child has an acute otitis media doesn’t mean that it’s due to a bacterial infection. Many are caused by viruses and wouldn’t respond to antibiotics anyway. And just because it’s due to a bacterial infection, doesn’t mean it requires antibiotics. Nearly ¾ of all ear infections, even bacterial ones, will resolve spontaneously.
In the “old days,” any kid who showed up with an ear infection would buy themselves a 10-day course of amoxicillin. In this era of antibiotic resistance, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have issued guidelines for “watchful waiting.” Observation without antibiotics for 48-72 hours is now considered an option for a child with uncomplicated acute otitis media who is:
• 6 months to 2 years with non-severe illness and uncertain diagnosis; or
• 2 years of age and older without severe symptoms or with uncertain diagnosis.
In the meantime, while you’re waiting and watching, your child is in pain and you’re thinking, “Isn’t there anything I can do to help my child with his pain, and treat his infection without antibiotics?
Why yes! YES – there is!
Natural treatments are AWESOME for ear infections. In fact, treating ear infections holistically has been one of the greatest rewards in my practice. I can literally count on my fingers how many times I’ve had to prescribe antibiotics for acute otitis media in the last 11 years since I started Whole Family Wellness. Yup – pretty awesome!
What’s the evidence that natural treatments can work for ear infections?
In one study, an herbal ear drop containing extracts of garlic, calendula, St John’s wort and mullein flower – herbs which have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties – was found to be as effective in reducing ear pain compared with an anesthetic ear drop(1). Another study found that the same herbal ear drop along with lavender and Vitamin E were more effective in reducing ear pain than when those same ear drops were given with amoxicillin(2)!
Individualized homeopathic medicines have also been shown to be effective in reducing pain and the need for antibiotics, and at least as effective as conventional treatments(3,4,5). One study found that an individualized homeopathic medicine was effective in controlling pain in 39% of patients after 6 hours, and another 33% of patients after 12 hours – that’s nearly ¾ of kids with complete pain control within 12 hours! There is NO antibiotic that is going to work as fast(6)!
What are these natural treatments, you ask?
Natural remedies work best when individualized to your child’s specific symptoms, and there are too many specific medicines to list. (In between patients, I’m diligently working to bring you my Ecourse “Healthy Kids Happy Kids – All Year Long!” as soon as humanly possible to teach you all the remedies you need to know to successfully treat your kid’s ear infection and other common conditions! It will be worth the wait – you’ll feel like Supermom or Superdad ready to take charge of your child’s health naturally!)
In the meantime, here is my top list of natural remedies that I recommend to treat kids with ear infections safely and effectively.
Garlic ear drops
Unless your child has ear tubes or has a perforated ear drum, garlic ear drops are a must! While you can certainly make garlic ear drops at home, as much as I wish I were, I unfortunately am not a DIY-kinda girl. Garlic can also be very irritating to the skin so you have to be absolutely sure that you’ve filtered out every last bit of garlic from your oil. And with limited time, and so many great ready-made options available, I typically recommend that parents buy garlic ear drops. In our office we carry the Mullein Garlic Ear Oil by Herb Pharm that has the same combination of garlic, calendula, St. John’s Wort and mullein flower used in the studies mentioned above.
Directions for use:
• Warm the bottle by rolling back and forth in your hands or running under warm water (cold drops may make your child feel dizzy)
• Put 3-4 drops in the painful ear(s) 3-4x/day
• You can have your child lay down with that ear up for a minute or so, or put a little piece of cotton in that ear to keep the drops in
• Repeat 3-4x/day and as needed for pain
Homeopathic medicines work best when individualized to your child’s symptoms, but these are awesome first go-to’s! If you’re new to homeopathy, be sure to check out my previous blog posts What is Homeopathy – Part 1 and What is Homeopathy – Part 2.
By now you may have seen Oscilloccinum lining the shelves at Whole Foods and other stores. This is THE homeopathic flu remedy, but also a MUST at the very beginning of an ear infection, which often starts as a flu-like illness. Studies have shown that taking Oscillococcinum at the onset of flu significantly reduces symptoms and shortens the duration of illness(7,8).
The recommended dosage is 1 vial 3 times over a 24-hour period, preferably at the very onset of your child’s ear infection. The dosage is the same regardless of age and weight. Take the entire vial of tasty sprinkles and suck on them until they dissolve, ideally at least 10 minutes away from food or drink.
Ferrum phosphoricum is THE homeopathic “anti-inflammatory” medicine. Ferrum phosphoricum also targets the eustachian tube, or the ear canal, and helps the fluid trapped in the ear canal to drain effectively and reduces the inflammation that is causing ear pain.
Use Ferrum phosphoricum in a 9C or 30C dilution (the 30C dilution is typically easier to find at health food stores and Whole Foods). Give 3 pellets every 3-4 hours, ideally at least 10 minutes away from food or drink.
Belladonna is a great addition to Ferrum phosphoricum when your child has a high fever, is clammy and agitated with a bright red face, screaming in pain, and has a bright red throbbing eardrum. If indicated, you can give it together with the Ferrum phosphoricum, in the 9C or 30C dilution, 3 pellets every 3-4 hours away from food or drink.
Since kids usually develop ear infections after they’ve had a cold or flu-like illness, adding on herbal medicines that I also recommend for colds and flus can be a great addition to what you’re doing above. There are a variety of very effective herbal medicines that work amazingly well to help your family recovery faster from colds and flus. These are a few of what I have found to be incredibly helpful.
Windbreaker is a Chinese herbal formula by Kan Herbs. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fever and flu are caused by an attack of “wind,” so this formula knocks the wind right out of your system! It works GREAT for colds, flus and fever! This is my “go-to” for me and my kids. No, I won’t lie – it’s a bit bitter, but it’s definitely worth a try. My kids have been taking this since they were infants, and love the taste. But if your kids are a bit pickier, you can mix with honey or a bit of tart juice like pomegranate or lemonade to mask the flavor. The typical dosage for toddlers is 1-2 droppersful 3x/day; for older kids 3 droppersful 3x/day, and for teens and adults 4 droppersful 3x/day.
Pelar-what? Also known as Umckaloabo, this traditional African herb can significantly shorten the duration and severity of colds and other upper respiratory infections. It has been found to improve macrophage activity, kill bacteria and viruses, and improve the ability to clear mucous from the lungs. We carry an alcohol-free syrup of Pelargonium sidoides called V Clear. It can also be found over-the-counter as Umcka Syrup by Nature’s Way. The recommended dosage is ½ tsp 3x/day for children ages 2-6 years, 1 tsp 3x/day for children ages 6-12 years, and 1.5 tsp 3x/day for children over 12 years and adults.
One of the easiest and most effective acupuressure points to use for fever, earaches, and immune strengthening is Large Intestine 4 (LI 4). LI 4 is located on the top of the hand, in the webspace between your thumb and index finger. Put your thumb on the point, and your index finger on the palm side of your child’s hand. Squeeze your thumb and index together, make small circular motions with your thumb with firm but gentle pressure. Aim for several minutes or 100 circles.
Essential oils don’t just smell great, they have amazing therapeutic power! One of my favorites – a true panacea – is lavender. Lavender essential oil helps to relieve inflammation and pain and reduce the stress and anxiety associated with earaches – for you and your child! You can diffuse the oil into the air by her bedside, put a few drops into her bath, massage onto her feet, or better yet, massage right into LI4 when you do acupressure as she drifts off to a restful sleep.
What if your child ends up needing antibiotics?
While these natural remedies work GREAT for most kids, there may be times that despite your best efforts, your child ends up needing antibiotics. Definitely see your child’s doctor if he has a fever for more than 4-5 days, looks very sick to you, is continuing to feel worse or isn’t any better after 2-3 days on the above treatments.
And if you’re child does need antibiotics – don’t despair! As long as you support her with probiotics to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, she’ll be fine! As a general rule, try to give probiotics at least 1-2 hours away from each antibiotics dose so that the antibiotics don’t kill the probiotics. Don’t know which probiotic to give? Click here to download my free Guide to Choosing Your Child’s Probiotic!
So there you have it! My top natural remedies to treat ear infections! Please share this with any parent you know who wants to learn even more ways to help their children thrive and live healthy, happy lives!
Wishing you a healthy, happy rest of the winter! Stay tuned and be sure you’re signed up for more awesome info to come.
xo Holistic mama doc – Elisa Song, MD
- Efficacy of Naturopathic Extracts in the Management of Ear Pain Associated With Acute Otitis Media E. Michael Sarrell, MD; Avigdor Mandelberg, MD; Herman Avner Cohen, MD. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2001;155(7):796-799. doi:10.1001/archpedi.155.7.796.
- Naturopathic treatment for ear pain in children. Sarrell EM, Cohen HA, Kahan E. Pediatrics. 2003 May;111(5 Pt 1):e574-9.
- Homeopathic treatment of acute otitis media in children: a preliminary randomized placebo-controlled trial. Jacobs J et al. Pediatr Infect Dis J, 2001 Feb;20(2):177-83.
- Randomized controlled pilot study to compare homeopathy and conventional therapy in acute otitis media. Sinha MN et al. Homeopathy 2012, Jan;101(1):5-12.
- Homeopathic and conventional treatment for acute respiratory and ear complaints: a comparative study on outcome in the primary care setting. Haidvogl M et al. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2007 Mar 2;7:7.
- Homeopathy in acute otitis media in children: treatment effect or spontaneous resolution? Frei H. and Thurneysen A. British Homeopath J, 2001 Oct;90(4):180-2.
- Ferley JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar D, Balducci F. A controlled evaluation of a homoeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenzalike syndromes. Br J Clin Pharmac, 1989; 27 (3): 329-35.
- Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, Burkard G, Bengel J, Lehrl S, Belon P. Oscillococcinum® in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled double-blind evaluation. Br Homeopath J, 1998; 87: 69-76.