Can Food Allergies Cause Recurring Ear Infections?


Otitis media, or a middle ear infection, is common in infants and young children. In fact, it is the leading reason for trips to the pediatrician and the number one reason children get antibiotics. One study found that by the age of 3, 71 percent of children had experienced at least one middle ear infection. An ear infection can be very painful for a young child or baby, and for parents it means an inconsolable child. Recent research has found that there may be a connection between food allergies and ear infections. If so, it could mean that avoiding infections is just a matter of avoiding an allergen.

Ear Infections in Infants and Children

Babies and toddlers are more susceptible to otitis media than older children and adults for several reasons. Part of the structure of the inner ear, the Eustachian tubes, are more level in youngsters, which means that fluids don’t drain as easily as in adults. A backup of fluid during a cold or the flu can lead to an infection. Younger children also have weaker immune systems, and so an ear infection can develop more rapidly and is not likely to heal on its own.

A child or infant with an ear infection may show signs of tugging on the ears, crying, not being able to sleep, losing balance and acting irritable. A fever is also possible. It’s important to see your pediatrician if you suspect your child has an ear infection. Untreated, persistent ear infections can lead to hearing loss, delays in speech or even a torn eardrum, which requires surgery to repair. For children with severe and chronic ear infections, having tubes surgically implanted in the ear for drainage is sometimes used as treatment.

Food Allergies and Recurring Ear Infections

More than one study has found that there seems to be a connection between ear infections in children and babies and food allergies, especially milk allergies. In one early study on the subject, researchers looked at over 100 children with recurring ear infections and tested them for food allergies. They found that one-third of the children were allergic to milk and one-third to wheat, and 81 out of the 104 children had at least one food allergy. All 81 were put on a diet to avoid the allergens and 70 of them experienced relief from ear infections. Those children were then given their allergens again and for 66 of them the ear infections came back.

Other studies have reinforced this clear connection. In one of these, researchers found that there is a higher incidence of recurring middle ear infections in babies and children with an allergy to milk than in a control group of youngsters. The same study also found that respiratory allergies and asthma seemed to be a risk factor for ear infections.

Avoiding Allergens to Prevent Infections

More research is still needed to figure out why there is this connection between food allergies and middle ear infections. However, the current evidence is strong and may give hope to parents who have to watch their children struggle and suffer with these painful infections. Even more importantly, just knowing about this connection could lead to the prevention of hearing loss and of the need for surgery.

If you have a child with recurring ear infections, it may be worthwhile to have him tested for food allergies. Visit with your pediatrician to discuss the possibility. It’s never a good idea to experiment with eliminating possible food allergens from your child’s diet without guidance from your doctor or allergist. Doing so can lead to nutrition deficits. However, if your pediatrician or an allergist can pinpoint a food allergy, taking it out of your child’s diet may make all the difference. It may just be the solution to reducing or eliminating chronic ear infections.