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New study shows infant ear infections are declining

Pediatric study finds ear infections aren't a rite of passage for newborns

A new study published Monday in Pediatrics has found that ear infections aren’t as universal a rite of passage for newborns as they once were, thanks largely to vaccinations and breastfeeding.

The researchers, hailing from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, recruited the help of 367 families with newly born infants from October 2008 to March 2014. The infants were meticulously tracked up until their first birthday, with the parents notifying the authors the minute they suspected their child had an ear or upper respiratory infection. In an attempt to zero in on any potential causes, the authors also pored through the infants’ family histories and medical records, and regularly obtained their nose and throat mucus samples. When they compared their results to similar research conducted in earlier decades, they found that ear infection rates had noticeably dropped across the board.

"We clearly showed that frequent upper respiratory infections, carriage of bacteria in the nose, and lack of breastfeeding are major risk factors for ear infections," said lead author Dr. Tasnee Chonmaitree, a member of the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB, in a statement."Prolonged breastfeeding was associated with significant reductions in both colds and ear infections, which is a common complication of the cold. It is likely that medical interventions in the past few decades, such as the use of pneumonia and flu vaccines and decreased smoking, helped reduce ear infection incidences."

What's more, six percent of children in the current study had a confirmed ear infection by the time they were 3 months old, compared to the 18 percent observed in earlier studies. By 6 months, it was nine percent vs 23 percent, and by the time infants reached their first birthday candle, it was 46 percent vs 62 percent.

The study’s findings line up well with other research on the subject. When the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its treatment guidelines for children’s ear infections (more formally known as acute otitis media) in 2013, they noted that the number of annual office visits to the doctor for an ear infection had dropped more than 30 percent between 1995-1996 and 2005-2006. As with the current researchers, they cited the increased uptake of vaccines, specifically the 7-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against seven disease-causing strains of the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, commonly responsible for ear infections and the seasonal influenza vaccine, among other factors. Earlier research has found the same dampening effect from breastfeeding as well.

Meanwhile, though still heavily given to babies with ear infections, antibiotics only slightly help (while causing plenty of side effects) and are not recommended as a first line treatment by organizations like the AAP.

Ear infections are near unavoidable as we age, with about 80 percent of children having had one by the time they turn ten. But the risk of having repeated or more serious infections is thought to increase substantially the earlier our first infection occurs, especially within the first six months of life. While most ear infections are either symptomless or require little than over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen to manage, more severe and/or chronic cases can contribute to hearing loss.

This latest study then should be nothing less than sweet music to new and expectant parents’ ears.