Children's ear infection cases in rapid decline

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A recent report shows that ear infections in children have dropped by nearly 30 percent in the last decade and a half. While breastfeeding advocates — who have long claimed breastfeeding lowers incidents of ear infections — will likely credit the rise of the breastfeeding rate by U.S. mothers (the Centers for Disease Control says currently approximately 75% of mothers at least breastfeed early postpartum), Harvard researchers say it’s the decline in smoking by adults.

Others, like ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, tells the Associated Press that the cause is far from certain, saying, “We’re sort of guessing here.”

Rosenfeld added that the large increase in ear infections between 1975-1990 stemmed from the increase in both parents working outside the home, and more children being placed in daycare centers — which every working parent knows can be a cesspool of infectious germs, some of which cause ear infections.


The CDC states that the rate of U.S. nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke has plummeted from 88 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2008. It’s these numbers a Harvard University study points to, and Dr. Gordon Hughes of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders was quoted as saying, “Cigarette smoke, inhaled through a child’s nose, can trigger the same kind of irritation and swelling [as a cold would].”

The question is far from answered, however, as anecdotal cases showing the opposite abound, such as the Willis family in North Carolina, who the AP profiles as a non-smoking, vaccinated, breastfeeding household whose two young children have had 14 ear infections between them. Vanessa Willis tells the AP:

“I remember spending many nights on the couch sitting straight up, holding him against my chest. That’s a miserable thing for working parents.”

While ear infections are on the decline, they are not going to go completely away anytime soon. The CDC says there are still 12.5 million medical visits each year for children ages 6 and under to be treated for ear infections.

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  • Karen MCGuirk

    44 years ago I breast fed my son, then my daughter. Both had raging ear aches all of their childhood, and into young adulthood. Over 65 years ago my mother breast fed me and my siblings, all of us had severe ear aches throughout our childhood. So, my opinion of your thesis about this modern generation finding the cure for earaches…………….. bunk!
    Try again you goody, goodies. And , too damn bad for you crybaby moms who think it is inconvenient for you to also be working. GROW UP!

  • Lucy

    I find it interesting they don’t mention the pneumococcal vaccine, surely that had some impact. Yes, I called you surely.

  • Kevin

    I think any educated, science minded person knows that individual anecdotes are hardly evidence for any theory. To draw sound conclusions, you need a pool of study participants large enough to find a correlation between events. I can find anyone with a story to prove any point.

  • Jeff

    As a pediatrician, I agree with the comment regarding anectdotes – to make a statement like that, there needs to be some evidence behind it. And smoking decrease may be a part, but I have been waiting to see a reduction in otitis media (ear infections) since the pneumococcal vaccine was introduced. Granted, most ear infections are viral, but a certain percentage are likely avoided or mitigated with the vaccine.

  • Mike Erkel

    I believe that influenza vaccine maybe responsible in part for a decrease in ear infections.
    I suspect the vaccine may work by decreasing upper respiratory infections the major contributing factor in otitis media.

  • Eric

    l am also a pediatrician. I noticed a huge reduction in otitis media among my patients about 24 months after the introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine. Every one of my colleagues noticed the same. Although this is anecdotal information, I believe there is a high probability that there is a causal relationship.

  • Swaters

    Karen MCGuirk
    You’re a nasty piece of work

    Why so hard on fellow women and mothers? You’re meanness is vulgar and sad.

  • John

    I think everyone is forgetting the most reasonable explanation…Barrack Obama. He is the second coming and his curing the world of ear infections is but a sign. Accept him and all your economical and physical problems will go away.

  • See McSee

    I had ear and sinus infections for years when I was a young child. My father smoked heavily. I also have had dairy intolerances all my life. I would guess that any number of irritants and intolerances cause swelling and other symptoms that exacerbate ear infections and that greater awareness of the impact to a child’s health from various contributory factors has led to the decline.

  • J. Eesha

    In referring to child care programs you said, “which every working parent knows can be a cesspool of infectious germs” . . . what an irresponsible incendiary remark ! State regulations require handwashing not only before and after meals and toileting, but also upon entering the building, after blowing the nose, before and after using a water table, and on and on, as well as sanitizing doorknobs, sink handles, chairs, tables, toys,etc. on a daily and ongoing basis. A standard that is considerably higher than is practiced in most homes. So to make such a statement is to add just one more insensitive and unwarranted opportunity of guilt or concern for parents who work and have placed their child in the care of trained professionals. Why not just stay on topic in a responsible way.

  • The irony of this is that my mom used to blow smoke in our ears in order to try to relieve the ear aches my brother and I used to get.

  • Phil


    You’re seriously turning an article about children’s health into a forum for your political opinions? Seriously?

    Do you do the same thing on baking, woodworking, and horticulture blogs? I would not be surprised to learn that you do.

    Ridiculous wingnut.

  • Ed Bryant

    @Karen MCGuirk:

    The plural of anecdote is NOT fact… people like you remind the rest of us why we do double-blind studies.

  • vodeep

    An Ayurvedic approach: Mothers in the western world have been serving meals with more fruits and vegetables, and less heavy meats so hard for children to digest. The child’s digestion as a result moves better and the flow of lymph, in fact, all channels in children move more freely. THis could be contributing to the drop in ear infections.

    The head is completely tied in with all the rest of the physiology. If the digestion is slowed down with processing heavy foods, the head is going to be stuffed. Freeing up the tissues and channels throughout the body, head especially, gives less chance for infection to set in.

    Ayurveda, or Vedic medicine advises lighter meals than the current western diet. More soupy type dishes in meals, more fluids. All heavy foods are great for serving in the week, are tasty and fun (cake, cookies, heavy dairy like cheese, meats, yeasted bread) but also serve more fruits, grains, vegetables, fluids.

  • osbuck

    Ear infections and pain are easily cured by using drops of 50% alcohol and 50% vinegar. Use them twice a day until there is no pain and then flush the ear with something like I guarantee this system works for all people of all ages.

  • They’re filthy rotten LIARS! Ear infections aren’t caused by “irritation.” They’re caused by infections with specific viruses which up-regulate cell-surface antigens that serve as bacterial receptor sites. And all their phony “studies” are cynically designed to exploit the fact that smokers and passive smokers are more likely to be exposed to those viruses, for SOCIOECONOMIC reasons.

    And Harvard University is a nest of charlatans who deliberately commit scientific fraud and use their political connections to get away with it. They want to shove their religious BS down our throats by pretending it’s “science.”

  • Claudia

    My daughter had terrible chronic ear infections in the mid 90s – at the advice of a nurse practitioner, I started using herbal ear drops whenever she got a cold, and her ear infections just stopped. She got to the point that when she got a cold, she’d point to her ears and say “drops”, because she knew it would mean relief. The nurse practitioner, who was the wife of our pediatrician, said that the drops seemed to work well for many kids. They included mullein flower oil and garlic oil.

  • Vodeep may be right about the trend to eating more vegetables and fruits being involved (and avoiding dairy and animal products and processed foods); see also the writings of Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD on that, like his book “Disease-Proof Your Child”. Adequate supplemental vitamin D may also be helping (see the Vitamin D Council or GrassRootsHealth) given that dermatologists have scared everyone away from getting sun exposure and the US RDA for vitamin D (even recently revised upward) is probably still way too low for pregnant women and other adults. Avoiding too much preformed vitamin A (where the RDA may be too high if preformed and excess interferes with vitamin D use) and getting more iodine (where the USA RDA may be too low and much bread has goitrongeninc bromine in it) may be helping too. As might be more breastfeeding, and, indeed, less cigarette smoking. It may well be several factors together. I’m waiting to see if the increase in taking supplemental vitamin D during pregnancy greatly reduces the autism epidemic (it cuts delivery complications significantly, to begin with). I can wonder if that will track similar trends to these ear infectons to the degree it relates to immune system problems during pregnancy or early childhood (see Dr. Mark Hyman on that)?

  • Charlie

    Many years ago during yet another middle of the night visit to the emergency department with a child with yet another raging earache, I finally asked the intern “What’s causing all the earaches? The kids seem to get them everytime they get a cold” He said “It’s congestion in the ear canal” I said “So I should start them on a decongestant as soon as they get a cold?” He said “I guess so”. After that everytime the kids got a sniffle we started giving them Dimetapp or some other children’s decongestant and that was the end of the earaches.

  • Kieran

    No, I’m with john, pretty sure it’s obama.

  • Mary

    I’ll be first to admit that I am not scientific. Both of my kids had numerous ear infections, I smoked in our house. Later on as a supervisor, I noticed with interest that the Mom’s who didn’t smoke in the home weren’t as likely, as in not often, to be absent with kids ear infections. Scientific – nope? Interesting – yes! 2nd hand smoke may not be the whole cause, but I am sure it is a contributor just as breast feeding may as well be a contributor to the decrease in ear infections as well.

  • jake

    nope i m pretty sure it was obama

  • Dean

    The correlation between the decline in ear infections and the decline in pirates is unmistakable.

    Seriously, these ‘scientists’ are simply grasping at straws when trying to show correlation to…something, anything.

  • Nestor

    Lord what a strange string of comments on such an innocuous story.

  • mel

    early exposure to “daycare” viruses such as those that lead to ear infections significantly decrease the incidence of childhood leukemia, allergies, and asthma. my children will thank me for this.

  • diana

    Anybody who thinks daycares aren’t nasty dirty germpits is living in a dream world. And anyone who thinks that having two salaries (to support nicer cars, bigger houses and more unnecessary items) is more important than staying at home and bonding with your child, leads a very sad existence.

  • Non Dairy Mama

    I am a single working mother and the sole provider for my child. When I was a child in the early 80’s I had severe ear infections to the point of blood. I had drainage tubes put in my ears at 2 years old. I believe that the reason that ear infections have declined is because more and more Mothers are raising their children non-dairy. I was unable to breast feed my now 4 year old son because he was tongue tied at birth. I raised him on soy formula and have since switched to almond milk. He loves it, and when you compare labels you may be surprised. I give him cheese, occasionally frozen yogurt and he is a happy and healthy boy. Never had an ear infection, and he turned 4 in January and has never been on antibiotics. He has been in day care since he was 20 months old and I consider myself lucky to have been able to let him stay at a home environment for so long. He also received an immunization for ear infections when he was 2 years old, it would make sense that an immunization would be working. But again, my son has been in day care for over 2 years and has never been on antibiotics.


  • Stacey

    what about people who need two salaries to pay the mortgage and put food on the table? Not everyone can raise a family on one income.