The best way to prevent ear infections is to prevent colds and flu.
Good Hygiene. Colds and flus are spread primarily when an infected person coughs or sneezes near someone else. A very common method for transmitting a cold is by shaking hands. Everyone should always wash their hands before eating and after going outside. Ordinary soap is sufficient. Waterless hand cleaners that contain an alcohol-based gel are also effective for everyday use and may even kill cold viruses. (They are less effective, however, if extreme hygiene is required. In such cases, alcohol-based rinses are needed.) Antibacterial soaps add little protection, particularly against viruses. Wiping surfaces with a solution that contains 1 part bleach to 10 parts water is very effective in killing viruses.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend annual influenza vaccination for all children 6 months to 5 years of age. Preventing influenza (the "flu') may be a more important protective measure against ear infections than preventing bacterial infections. For example, studies report that children who are vaccinated against influenza experience a third fewer ear infections during flu season than unvaccinated children.
Flu Vaccines. Flu vaccines produce an immune response that attacks the active virus. Vaccines are typically given by injection, usually between October and December. Antibodies to the influenza virus generally develop within 2 weeks of vaccination, and immunity peaks within 4 - 6 weeks, then gradually wanes. An intranasal vaccine called FluMist is approved for children ages 2 years and older. FluMist is made from a live but weakened influenza virus; flu shots use inactivated (not live) viruses. Children younger than 2 years old, and children younger than age 5 who have asthma or recurrent wheezing, should not receive FluMist.
Possible side effects include:
Antiviral Drugs. Antiviral drugs are available to treat influenza. One such drug, oseltamivir (Tamiflu), is approved for use in children age 1 year and older. Studies report significant reduction in symptoms and in the incidence of ear infections with this drug. Another antiviral drug, zanamivir (Relenza), is available for children older than age 7 years .
[For more information, see In-Depth Report #94: Colds and influenza.]
Preventive Antibiotics. Antibiotics may occasionally be recommended to prevent bacterial infections in children with recurrent ear infections (4 or more episodes a year). Studies suggest that overall they only prevent 1 episode a year.
Pneumococcal Vaccine. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) protects against S. pneumoniae (also called pneumococcal) bacteria in children, the most common cause of middle ear infections, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections. It is included in the Recommended Childhood Immunization Schedule and is specifically approved for preventing otitis media. The recommended schedule of pneumococcal immunization is four doses, given at 2, 4, 6, and 12 - 15 months of age. Still, the pneumococcal vaccine does not completely protect against otitis media.
Healthy Diet. Daily diets should include foods such as fresh, dark-colored fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants and other important food chemicals that help boost the immune system.
Probiotics ("Good" Bacteria). Researchers are studying the possible protective value of certain strains of lactobacilli, bacteria found in the intestines. Some of these strains, particularly acidophilus, are used to make yogurt. Studies have been mixed on probiotics‚ ' benefits for preventing ear infections.
Parents or others should not smoke around children. Several studies have found that children who live with smokers have a significant risk for ear infections.
Breastfeeding offers protection against many early infections, including ear infections. Mother's milk provides immune factors that help protect the child from infections. Also, infants are held during breast-feeding in a position that allows the Eustachian tubes to function well.
If possible, new mothers should breast-feed their infants for at least 4 - 6 months. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, exclusively breast-feeding for a baby‚ ' s first 6 months helps to prevent ear and other respiratory infections. For bottle-fed babies, to improve protection mothers should not lay babies down with their bottle; they should hold the infants in the same way they would to breastfeed them.
American Academy of Family Physicians; American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery; American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee on Otitis Media With Effusion. Otitis media with effusion. Pediatrics. 2004 May;113(5):1412-29.
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. Recommended immunization schedules for children and adolescents -- United States. Pediatrics. 2008 Jan;121(1):219-20. 2008..
American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee on Management of Acute Otitis Media. Diagnosis and management of acute otitis media. Pediatrics. 2004 May;113(5):1451-65.
Coleman C, Moore M. Decongestants and antihistamines for acute otitis media in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16;(3):CD001727.
Dohar J, Giles W, Roland P, Bikhazi N, Carroll S, Moe R, et al. Topical ciprofloxacin/dexamethasone superior to oral amoxicillin/clavulanic acidin acute otitis media with otorrhea through tympanostomy tubes. Pediatrics. 2006 Sep;118(3):e561-9.
Griffin GH, Flynn C, Bailey RE, Schultz JK. Antihistamines and/or decongestants for otitis media with effusion (OME) in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Oct 18;(4):CD003423.
Hatakka K, Blomgren K, Pohjavuori S, Kaijalainen T, Poussa T, Leinonen M, et al. Treatment of acute otitis media with probiotics in otitis-prone children-a double-blind, placebo-controlled randomised study. Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun;26(3):314-21. Epub 2007 Mar 13.
Koopman L, Hoes AW, Glasziou PP, Cees L, Appelman L, Burke P, et al. Antibiotic therapy to prevent the development of asymptomatic middle ear effusion in children with acute otitis media: a meta-analysis of individual patient data. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Feb 2008;134(2):128-132.
Leach AJ, Morris PS. Antibiotics for the prevention of acute and chronic suppurative otitis media in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Oct 18;(4):CD004401.
Little P. Delayed prescribing -- a sensible approach to the management of acute otitis media. JAMA. 2006 Sep 13;296(10):1290-1.
Morris PS. Upper respiratory tract infections (including otitis media). Pediatr Clin North Am. 2009 Feb;56(1):101-17, x.
Paradise JL, Feldman HM, Campbell TF, Dollaghan CA, Rockette HE, Pitcairn DL, et al. Tympanostomy tubes and developmental outcomes at 9 to 11 years of age. N Engl J Med. 2007 Jan 18;356(3):248-61.
Prymula R, Peeters P, Chrobok V, Kriz P, Novakova E, Kaliskova E, et al. Pneumococcal capsular polysaccharides conjugated to protein D for prevention of acute otitis media caused by both Streptococcus pneumoniae and non-typable Haemophilus influenzae: a randomised double-blind efficacy study. Lancet. 2006 Mar 4;367(9512):740-8.
Ramakrishnan K, Sparks RA, Berryhill WE. Diagnosis and treatment of otitis media. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Dec 1;76(11):1650-8.
Rosenfeld RM, Brown L, Cannon CR, Dolor RJ, Ganiats TG, Hannley M, et al. Clinical practice guideline: acute otitis externa. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2006 Apr;134(4 Suppl):S4-23.
Rosenfeld RM, Singer M, Wasserman JM, Stinnett SS. Systematic review of topical antimicrobial therapy for acute otitis externa. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2006 Apr;134(4 Suppl):S24-48.
Rovers MM, Glasziou P, Appelman CL, Burke P, McCormick DP, Damoiseaux RA, et al. Antibiotics for acute otitis media: a meta-analysis with individual patient data. Lancet. 2006 Oct 21;368(9545):1429-35.
Ruohola A, Meurman O, Nikkari S, Skottman T, Salmi A, Waris M, et al. Microbiology of acute otitis media in children with tympanostomy tubes: prevalences of bacteria and viruses. Clin Infect Dis. 2006 Dec 1;43(11):1417-22.
Smith JA, Danner CJ. Complications of chronic otitis media and cholesteatoma. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2006 Dec;39(6):1237-55.
Spiro DM, Tay KY, Arnold DH, Dziura JD, Baker MD, Shapiro ED. Wait-and-see prescription for the treatment of acute otitis media: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2006 Sep 13;296(10):1235-41.
Thanaviratananich S, Laopaiboon M, Vatanasapt P. Once or twice daily versus three times daily amoxicillin with or without clavulanate for the treatment of acute otitis media. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Oct 8;(4):CD004975.
Thompson PL, Gilbert RE, Long PF, Saxena S, Sharland M, Wong IC. Effect of antibiotics for otitis media on mastoiditis in children: a retrospective cohort study using the United kingdom general practice research database. Pediatrics. 2009 Feb;123(2):424-30.
© 2011 University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). All rights reserved.
UMMC is a member of the University of Maryland Medical System,
22 S. Greene Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. TDD: 1-800-735-2258 or 1.866.408.6885