The anatomy of our middle ear changes as we get older, so adults get less susceptible to earaches following a cold than small children are. It’s a good thing, too, because for grown-ups to be walking around pulling at our ears and crying our eyes out would be a pathetic sight indeed. When the middle ear does get infected (a condition called otitis media), it’s definitely painful. But also uncomfortable in its own special way is the maddening itch of swimmer’s ear (otitis externa). Disconcerting, too, is the clogged and muffled hearing of excessive earwax, or the blockage and ringing sensation following scuba diving or air travel. You’ll need to see a doctor if any of these lasts for more than two or three days.
But until then, let’s see if some of our healing solutions at WholeHealth Chicago can help.
What is Earache?
An earache is usually the result of an inflammation or infection that occurs somewhere inside the ear. Otitis media, for instance, is an infection of the middle ear (the area between the eardrum and inner ear) that frequently afflicts children. Middle-ear infections occur when the Eustachian tube–the part of the anatomy that helps drain fluid from the middle ear–gets swollen and blocked. Depending on the severity, this can result in a mild but constant ache or in relentless, throbbing pain. Otitis externa–also called swimmer’s ear–is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear, which consists of the fleshy part you can see as well as the portion of the ear canal that leads to the eardrum. Both causes of ear pain are not serious when properly managed. In some cases, earaches simply go away on their own. But persistent earaches that are ignored can lead to serious problems, including permanent hearing loss.
- Pain, ranging in severity from mild to excruciating
- Loss of hearing or a clicking or popping sound when moving the jaw
- Feeling of fullness or itching in the ear
- Discharge (fluid or pus) from the ear canal
- Redness or swelling of the outer ear
- Fever, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
What Causes Earache?
Earaches are usually caused by an infection that is either bacterial, viral, or fungal in nature. Middle-ear infections may develop from an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold. In some cases, bacteria travel up from the back of the throat through the Eustachian tube and settle into the middle ear. This occurs “behind” the eardrum, so that when your doctor looks into your ear, he can see how the normally gray eardrum has become inflamed and reddened.
Swimmer’s ear is more like an extension of a skin infection, in that it’s limited to the external ear and the inch-long canal that ends at the drum. This infection can be the result of an overproduction of fungi or bacteria, which thrive in the moist environment of the ear canal and are aggravated by a moisture source, such as swimming. Other causes of middle and external ear infections include:
Nasal allergies. Excessive mucus production from allergies can block the Eustachian tube and promote infection in the middle ear.
Inherited disorders. Because of an abnormality in the structure of their Eustachian drainage system, children with Down’s syndrome and cleft palates are more susceptible to middle-ear infections.
Second-hand smoke. Children who live in smoking households are more likely to suffer from middle ear infections than children who live in smoke-free environments.
Skin problems. Inflammation caused by seborrheic dermatitis and eczema can spread into the ear canal and produce an external ear infection.
Ear wax. An overproduction of earwax can trap moisture and trigger an inflammation in the canal.
Foreign matter. Inserting objects (such as cotton swabs) into the ear, as well as exposure to abrasive chemicals (such as those used in hair dyes) can scratch or irritate the sensitive lining the canal, making it susceptible to infection.
Treatment and Prevention
Some earaches can be prevented. If you employ cotton swabs to clean your ears, use them only on the external part of your ear. Do not insert cotton swabs or any other object into the ear canal. In the event an earache occurs, there are a variety of ways to ease the pain and speed healing.
If you or your child is especially prone to developing earaches with head colds, include a decongestant in your treatment plan. If you don’t want to take a decongestant because of side effects (nervousness, rapid heart rate, poor sleep), then use a decongesting nasal spray (in your nose, not your ear!) or try steam inhalation with some eucalyptus oil.
Although pediatricians routinely prescribe antibiotics for virtually all ear infections, there is increasing evidence that antibiotics are being overused. In fact, the necessity of having an antibiotic for recurrent bacterial ear infections is now being seriously questioned. Such factors as diet (eliminating dairy or other food allergies, reducing sugar), avoiding second-hand smoke, keeping the room well humidified, and checking for hidden allergies may turn out to be the better approach for many of these infections.
Children who suffer from chronic middle-ear infections may be encouraged to undergo ear tube surgery. The tubes, which stay in place for a limited amount of time, allow fluid to drain from the ears. Like the overuse of antibiotics, some doctors are beginning to question the long-term benefit of this procedure as well.
For adults however, if an earache is caused by a bacterial infection, a course of antibiotics is probably needed to clear it up. In cases where fluid has accumulated, a doctor may use a small suction device to remove it.
Over-the-counter and prescription ear-drop analgesics can help ease ear pain. And some supplements may bring added relief and help facilitate the healing process. Just remember: Do not put anything into an ear canal if you have “tubes” placed in your ears or if you have a known perforation in an ear drum. If you’re in severe pain, it may be best to check first with your physician.
Any treatment or self-care therapy suggested here is really limited to adults and not meant for infants or children. The main exceptions are ear drops, which are fine for infants, children, and adults. You can also give zinc lozenges to children over 30 lbs. in the dosage schedule described. The other supplements, as well as the steam inhalation using eucalyptus oil, should be limited to people over age 16.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a supplement regimen.
How Supplements Can Help
Eucalyptus oil, when added to the water of a steam bath and inhaled several times a day, may ease pressure in the Eustachian tube and encourage drainage of any fluid that has collected in the middle ear. (Don’t put it in your ears, however.) Just place a few drops of the oil in a pan of water (which is heated to boiling) or in the bathtub. Eucalyptus oil should never be taken internally and avoided (or used only with extreme caution) around children, who are especially susceptible to the fumes.
Gently rubbing lavender oil into the outer ear can soothe an external irritation.
Garlic oil and mullein oil can be used separately or together as ear drops. These oils help fight infection and may lessen discomfort. If your ear pain is severe or if you have any hearing loss or discharge coming from your ear, do not use drops; you need to see your doctor.
Temporarily using higher than your normal daily amounts of vitamins A and C can enhance your immune system. Echinacea is another immune system booster. Especially when used early in an infection, this herb has been shown to help ward off colds, which can lead to ear infections. A natural antibiotic, echinacea also can help fight ear infections that are bacterial in origin. Zinc gluconate lozenges have both antiviral and immune-stimulating effects.
Flavonoids are naturally occurring plant pigments that can act as anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, and antivirals. They may enhance the effect of vitamin C when dealing with infections and be especially helpful when an infection has been triggered by allergies such as hay fever.
- Apply heat. Warming the ear with a heating pad or warm compress can relieve pain and promote healing.
- Elevate your head while sleeping. Use pillows to prop up your head while you sleep. Keeping the head raised can help fluids drain from the ear. Be sure to wash pillowcases–as well as heating pads and washcloths–to prevent reinfection.
- Take care. Do not attempt to clean the ear with a cotton swab or alcohol. This will only irritate it and may cause further pain.
- Use a nasal spray or steam inhalation to reduce nasal and Eustachian tube congestion.
- Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming.
When to Call a Doctor
- If earache or hearing loss lasts longer than three or four days despite treatment, or if symptoms worsen.
- If ear pain is accompanied by a fever, sore throat, or severe headache.
- If ear is red and swollen or produces discharge.
- If you experience severe ear pain that stops suddenly followed by hearing loss.
- This may mean that the eardrum has burst.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: If your ear pain is severe, or accompanied by puslike drainage or partial hearing loss, you need medical attention. On the other hand, if you have “swimmer’s ear,” the sense of fullness you get with a cold or allergies, or your ear discomfort is mild to moderate, the supplements listed below can help. They can be used in conjunction with any conventional drugs, including antibiotics, pain relievers, or decongestants.
How to Take the Supplements
Mullein oil and garlic oil (or a combination of the two) make natural eardrops and also fight off microbes while reducing inflammation. If your outer ear is inflamed, gently applying some lavender oil may calm it.
Most earaches are the consequence of Eustachian tube congestion caused by a cold. The fastest way for an adult to open them (and the nasal passages too) is to squirt a good commercial nasal spray into each nostril, wait a half hour, and then inhale steam laced with a few drops of eucalyptus oil. You can do this three times a day until your congestion clears and ear fullness subsides.
In addition to your basic daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex, temporarily include the additional amounts of both vitamin A and vitamin C shown in the chart below. Also add flavonoids, to boost the C’s effectiveness, and echinacea, which is an herbal immunity enhancer.
If it feels like you’ve got a cold, suck on some zinc gluconate lozenges (one zinc gluconate lozenge every two to four hours as needed, not to exceed 150 mg zinc in 24 hours). If you suffer from recurrent middle ear infections (otitis media), you might benefit by taking zinc on a maintenance basis. And remember, if you’re taking 30 mg zinc a day for more than one month, add 2 mg copper a day.
Any treatment or self-care therapy suggested here is really limited to adults and not meant for infants or children. The main exceptions are ear drops, which are fine for infants, children, and adults. You can also give zinc lozenges to children over 30 pounds. A safe dose for ages 2 to 5 is 2 lozenges (5 mg) a day, for ages 6 to 10, 4 lozenges (10 mg) a day. The other supplements, as well as the steam inhalation using eucalyptus oil, should be limited to people over age 16.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD