When it comes to ear pain, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
The good news is that there’s been a decline in ear infections in kids since the pneumococcus vaccine was introduced several years ago to combat pneumococcus. This is one of the most common and potentially serious bacteria to cause ear and sinus infections (not to mention pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis), and according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the bacterium used to cause 500 million ear infections annually, not to mention hundreds of cases of meningitis and thousands of blood infections. (More on the life-saving vaccine at the CDC.)
#1: Buy a Bubble
The bad news is that there’s not a whole lot one can do to prevent ear infections, which can be both bacterial and viral, beyond the basic first step of immunization. When we sat down with Dr. Mark Friedman, First Stop Health’s chief medical officer and a veteran emergency room physician, to talk about earaches and preventive care, he joked that the most effective prevention is to put your kid in a bubble.
But there are three other preventive measures that kids and adults can take, because kids aren’t the only ones who get earaches. In adults, the main earache is swimmer’s ear (which kids get, too), or otitis externa, which is when bacteria common in water and soil invade a moist inner ear and cause a painful infection. The Mayo Clinic reports that ear drops tend to resolve the issue, and the sooner they are taken, the better.
#2: Put Down Those Q-Tips
But how to prevent swimmer’s ear? Keep your ears clean and free of wax buildup. Pharmacies sell earwax kits that involve squiring lukewarm water into the ear via a simple syringe to wash out the wax. This may be more involved than Q-tips, but these are decidedly not your friend and can actually increase one’s chances of swimmer’s ear. “I liken it to trying to clean out a gun barrel by sticking something into the barrel, which doesn’t clean it out,” Dr. Friedman says. You may get tiny bits of wax out, but you’re likely jamming more of it further into your ear, which can make it less likely to drain, and which make bacteria very, very happy.
#3: Stay on Top of Pesky Allergies
Hay fever and other allergies can also cause swelling and blockage (again, this is typically in kids) that allow fluid to accumulate and bacteria to thrive, so a second preventive step is for people prone to allergies to take an antihistamine or decongestant like Zyrtec D.
#4: If You Smoke, Quit
Finally, and yes, you’ve heard it before, don’t smoke. JAMA Pediatric notes that the risk of ear infections in kids goes up if any member of their family smokes. The CDC reports that children of smokers have more fluid in their ears, and more operations to put in ear tubes. And the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery notes that not only do kids exposed to secondhand smoke have more ear infections, but that those infections last longer. Inhaled smoke irritates the eustachian tube, which leads to swelling and interferes with pressure in the middle ear. This is not only painful, but a recipe for fluid buildup, infection, and in some cases even hearing loss.
Ear infections take a huge toll on healthcare visits and costs. Healthday reports that they account for millions of doctor’s visits and $3 billion in care. At First Stop Health, nearly one in 10 avoided ER visits in 2016 were the result of ear aches, saving our members not only the cost of a doctor’s or ER visit, but valuable time to start treatment and minimize the pain.