The causative germ for an ear infection can be viral, bacterial or possibly fungal, in which case it becomes the equivalent of ‘jock itch’ of the ear or ‘ear thrush’. Infection of the middle ear (otitis media) and infection of the outer ear (otitis externa), which is also called swimmer’s ear, are common conditions that affect adults as well as children, for whom it is the most common reason for a visit to the doctor.
- Ear pain or ache.
- Sense of fullness in the ear.
- Hearing loss or muffled hearing.
- Noises such as buzzing and humming.
- Discharge, sometimes smelly.
- For infants, tugging or holding of the ears, irritability, unexplained crying,thanks change in sleeping patterns.
What causes it?
- Middle ear infections often occur after or during a cold or flu and are caused by germs travelling up the eustachian tube connecting the nose and throat to the ear.
- Swimming in polluted waters.
- Overzealous cleaning of ears.
- Underzealous drying of ears.
- There is a correlation between people who suffer from hayfever and experience ear infections. Treating the hayfever will go a long way to help prevent future ear infections.
- Food sensitivities may contribute to the occurrence of ear infections. Suspect wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, oranges, tomatoes or peanuts.
- Candida overgrowth may be the underlying cause of frequent ear infections. See page 00 to see if you fit this picture.
- External irritants such as hair spray or gel may initiate otitis externa.
- Environmental factors such as exposure to cigarette smoke, pollens and air pollution may also contribute to a susceptibility to ear infections.
Ear infections are much more common in babies and young children than in adults. The explanation is anatomical. In early life, the Eustachian tube that connects the middle ear to the throat is short and straight. It becomes more angled with age, allowing for better drainage. Until this adjustment, mucus, liquids and germs have an easier route to travel to the ear.
Glue ear, or secretory otitis media, is a condition where mucus accumulates in the middle ear. It often goes away of its own accord, however deafness can result if left untreated. Children who experience difficulty with the acquisition of language and/or other learning abilities may in fact be suffering from undiagnosed otitis media. The medical procedure is a myringotomy, where a small hole is made in the eardrum and a grommet is inserted. Grommets are plastic tubes that allow the eustachian tube to open and drain fluid internally. The procedure is uncomfortable and although it solves an immediate crisis, does not prevent glue ear from recurring. The remedies mentioned below will help treat and prevent glue ear.
What to do
Although affecting different parts of the ear, otitis media and externa are often both caused by the same infection and can be treated in the same way. If there is no improvement within a few days, or you suspect the inner ear is involved, see your doctor as you will probably need to take a course of antibiotics.
- Avoid any likely food sensitivities especially dairy, gluten or soy.
- Avoid alcohol as this will swell up the already tender mucous membranes.
- Drink lots of clear fluids. Hot broths and soups are ideal.
- Avoid sugar. It lowers immunity.
- Eat plenty of garlic and onions for their antibiotic properties.
- Echinacea, eyebright, andrographis, calendula, golden rod and golden seal are antibiotic and anti-inflammatory herbs and are especially good for ear infections. Take them in tablet, tincture or tea forms, adjust adult dosage when treating children.
- Cod-liver oil capsules are a good preventative. Take 1–2 daily.
- Zinc and vitamin C will boost the immune system and help fight the infection.
- Try garlic capsules or tablets in addition to dietary intake.
Important: this is not to be done if there is any damage to the eardrum or if you suspect the eardrum is perforated. See your doctor instead.
- Applying a few drops of warm oil is a tried-and-true remedy for ear infections. Plain olive or almond oil can be used, or even better, use an oil to which herbs or essential oils have been infused such as St. John’s wort flowers, calendula, garlic or mullein (see below). Warm the oil to blood temperature. This can be done by placing the oil in a small cup or glass then place in a sink of hot water. Fill a dropper with the oil and apply 2–3 drops into the affected ear(s), stopping it with cotton wool. Do this 3–4 times daily for several days.
- If a fungal infection is suspected, garlic oil with a couple of drops of tea-tree oil is well indicated. Warm a garlic capsule in your hands before piercing and applying.
Making a herbal-infused oil
You can buy infused oil from health food shops or to make your own, you will need a handful of one or more of the following fresh or dried herbs: mullein leaves and flowers, St. John’s wort flowers, calendula flowers or chopped fresh (not dried) garlic. Adjust quantities so that there is a full handful for 250 mls of olive or almond oil. In a glass jar with a lid, cover the herbs with oil. Make sure they are fully submerged (add more oil if necessary). Leave in sunlight or in a warm place for 3–4 days. Alternatively, place flowers and oil in a small saucepan and warm on an extremely low heat for 2–3 hours. Strain through muslin or a kitchen cloth into a sterilised bottle. Keep for up to 6 months. If you wish, you can add 20 drops of tea-tree, lavender and/or myrrh essential oils.
- Don’t swim if you suspect an infection. If you are prone to ear infections, wear earplugs whenever you swim and clean them regularly using tea-tree oil.
- Dry the ear meticulously after showering or swimming. The best way to do this is by using a hairdryer turned to low, held about 45 cm from the ear.
- Avoid cleaning your ears with cotton buds. This will tend to push the infection back inside the ear.
- To dry out the infection of otitis externa, put 1 or 2 drops of white vinegar and pure alcohol into the ear canal twice a day (this mixture is available at pharmacies). This is a good regular practice if you are a swimmer and prone to ear infections.
- Hopi ear candles may help the chronic sufferer by reducing pain and relieving congestion. They originated from the Hopi Indian tribe of North America and are made from linen, honey extracts and herbs. Inserted gently into the ear canal, they are then lit. A mild crackling may be heard by the recipient as the candle burns, drawing excess wax, air and waste products from the ear. Hopi ear candles are available from some health food shops and from practitioners. Avoid using if the eardrum is perforated and/or if there is any discharge from the ear. Ear candling should feel comfortable. Don’t proceed otherwise.
- Feed babies in an upright position, so that fluid drains downwards and not to the side towards the ear.
At a glance
- Middle and outer ear infections can be due to food sensitivities. Possible culprits include wheat, dairy and soy.
- Drink lots of clear fluids – hot broths and soups are ideal.
- Eat plenty of garlic and onions for their antibiotic properties.
- Herbs for infection of the ears include echinacea, eyebright, calendula, golden rod and golden seal.
- If you are prone to ear infections, take 1–2 cod-liver oil capsules daily as a preventative.
- Zinc and vitamin C will boost the immune system and help fight any infection.
- A few drops of warm, herbal-infused oil into each ear works wonders. Use warmed garlic oil or a herbal oil made from mullein, St. John’s wort, calendula or garlic.
- Forget about swimming while you have an infection.
- Dry ears with a hairdryer after showering or swimming. Wet ears are just asking for an infection.
- Ear candles sound odd, look odd and the crackling sensation as they burn above your head feels even odder. Yet they can be very helpful for a middle-ear infection, particularly where there is a lot of congestion.