Earache (otitis media)
What doctors say*
* Official guidelines from NICE.
Should antibiotics be used? >
Not suitable for antibiotics at all unless generally unwell or with bacterial infections or other complications.
Likely duration if untreated >
most within 3 days – some up to 8 days
Conventional self-care advice >
- regular paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain (right dose for age or weight at the right time and maximum doses for severe pain)
- evidence suggests that decongestants or anti- histamines do not help symptoms
Opportunities for antibiotic alternatives >
for most sufferers
Using steam inhalations is one of the oldest and apparently helpful approaches to relieving pain of earache due to otitis media. The independent evidence for effectiveness is limited and there are also many reports of steam burns from unwise applications. It may still be worth trying. Make sure the hot water is kept well away and children must be closely supervised. The middle ear is connected directly to the throat by the Eustachian tubes: these are the tubes that ‘go pop’ or get sore in airplanes or high altitudes and which get congested and infected in otitis media. So the best technique to get up these tubes is to breathe the steam in through the mouth and out through the nose, and during inhalation also move the jaw from side to side to open up the tubes. Try also dropping mentholated or other volatile oils in the steam. Strewing chamomile flowers on the hot water is also a good traditional tip.
Propolis, resins and balsams
As indicated in the sore throat section, remedies containing resins are long-standing remedies fin this region. The middle ear cavity where earaches arise, is directly linked to the throat via the Eustachian tube (responsible for the popping in the ears when coming down from high altitudes, for example in a plane) and earache can directly follow inflammation or infection in the throat. There is one clinical research study that showed a combination of propolis and zinc is specifically effective for otitis media. Other balsams and resinous remedies for sore throat and coughs are available in pharmacies or general stores. The best approach is to use any resin liquid as a gargle, spit out rather than swallow and then move the jaw from side to side(as with steaming above) to open up the Eustachian tubes to the effects of the resins.
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In the case of remedies or other products, users should read the label carefully for detailed information about safe use and in the case of natural products should choose responsible manufacturers with independently assured quality standards and safety monitoring procedures.
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