During the winter months, it seems like kids are sick nearly every week with another cold, virus or ear infection.
It’s not uncommon for a child to have an ear infection— more than 80 percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with ear infections by the time they’re 3 years old.
Pediatric ear infections are also the most common condition that antibiotics are prescribed for in the U.S., according to studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but many parents are worried about giving their child antibiotics.
Studies show overexposure to antibiotics can alter the microbiome and the healthy gut flora that ward off infections—sometimes even permanently. Antibiotics can also lead to thrush, intestinal yeast, diarrhea and a compromised immune system.
In fact, kids treated with low-doses of antibiotics were more likely to develop a biofilm within the ear itself and more likely to have chronic ear infections in the future, according to a study in the journal PLOS One.
Why do kids get ear infections?
Babies and young children are more susceptible to ear infections because the Eustachian tube, which connects the space between the eardrum and the back of the nose, is positioned at a horizontal angle, but in adults it’s diagonal or more vertical.
“The fluid drains directly into the ear versus draining down with gravity,” said Dr. Erika Krumbeck, a naturopathic physician who specializes in pediatrics and the founder and owner of Montana Whole Health in Missoula, Montana.
Although your child might have frequent ear infections, antibiotics may not have to be the first line of defense.
Here are eight natural remedies you can try:
1. Wait and watch
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that in low-risk kids, a wait-and-watch approach is a better choice than prescribing antibiotics right away. The guidelines, however, will vary depending on your child’s age, severity of symptoms, and whether the infection is in one or both ears.
Most physicians will wait between 24 and 48 hours to see if the symptoms will improve, but up to 72 hours is ok, too.
“I would recommend all parents to question immediately whether antibiotics are absolutely necessary or [if] they have some room to play” according to Krumbeck. “If you can get the fluid that is trapped in that Eustachian tube to drain, then you don’t have possibility for an infection any more.”
2. Onion earmuffs
It might seem odd, but “onion ear muffs,” can help ease pain and the antimicrobial properties can heal the infection, Krumbeck said.
Slice an onion in half and then either microwave or simmer it in half an inch of water until it’s soft. Then wrap the onion in a cloth and hold it up to your child’s ear for as long as he’ll tolerate it. Of course, make sure you feel the onion first to make sure it’s not too hot.
3. Garlic oil
Studies show that garlic is anti-inflammatory, will relieve pain, and can fight an ear infection whether it’s viral or bacterial, said Dr. Elisa Song, a holistic pediatrician at Whole Family Wellness in Belmont, California and founder of Healthy Kids Happy Kids.
At the first sign of pain, place one drop of garlic oil into your child’s ears three to four times a day. Since garlic can be irritating, don’t try to make it yourself— most health food stores sell it.
4. Acupressure and essential oils
Lavender essential oil reduces inflammation and when used with acupressure, it can help relieve ear infections.
The acupressure points are located in front of and behind the ear and the space between the thumb and index finger on the hand.
5. Use a humidifier
Running a humidifier can help to counteract the dry indoor air, reduce swelling, moisten the membranes and thin the mucus in the Eustachian tubes.
6. Elevate the bed
Prop up your child’s head with pillows to allow the fluid to drain down. For babies, boost up the head of the crib with some books.
7. Vitamin C
An oral vitamin C supplement can reduce swelling in the ears but it’s important to ask your doctor about the dosage, as too much can lead to diarrhea, Krumbeck said.
8. Homeopathic remedies
Studies show that homeopathic treatments can reduce the pain of ear infections and work faster than antibiotics.
One to try: ferrum phosphoricum, an anti-inflammatory remedy that specifically targets the eardrum. Use it alone or with garlic oil.