While ear infections remain the leading cause of children’s visits to the doctor, the number of such infections in infants is decreasing, according to new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. The study, published online March 28 in the journal Pediatrics, suggests the decline is due to higher rates of breastfeeding, use of vaccinations, and lower rates of smoking that result in a decrease in infants’ exposure to secondhand smoke.
“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,” lead researcher Tasnee Chonmaitree, MD, a professor of pediatrics at UTMB, said in a university news release.
From October 2008 to March 2014, Chonmaitree and her colleagues followed 367 babies from when they were less than a month old to their first birthday. The researchers collected information on family history of ear infections, if there were smokers in the home, and if the babies were breast or bottle fed.
Throughout the study, medical personnel collected nose and throat mucus samples to find and identify any infections. In addition, parents notified the research team whenever their baby showed signs of an ear or upper respiratory infection and the child was seen by a doctor within five days.
Study findings showed that the rate of ear infections dropped dramatically since similar studies were conducted in the late 1980s and 1990s. According to study results, rates of ear infections fell from 18 percent to 6 percent in 3-month-olds, from 39 percent to 23 percent in 6-month-olds, and from 62 percent to 46 percent by the time the babies were a year old.
Chonmaitree told HealthDay that the findings were not surprising. “This is what we anticipated,” she said. The UTMB professor noted that the pneumonia vaccine and the flu vaccine, which is recommended for children starting at 6 months, both have played a large part in protecting against ear infections.
Joseph Bernstein, MD, director of pediatric otolaryngology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, agreed, but also credited breastfeeding with providing protection against ear infections. Bernstein, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay that “the data really do suggest that breastfeeding – particularly exclusive breast feeding in the first six months of life – helps lower the risk of ear infections.”
In fact, the study found that babies who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months were 60 percent less likely to develop ear infections in the their first 6 months. The reason? Children who are breastfed receive more nutrients and immunity from their mothers. “The longer the breastfeeding goes on, the better the protection,” Chonmaitree said.
But whether babies are breastfed or not, they will benefit from routine vaccinations, Chonmaitree added. “Parents should make sure they’re on schedule with the recommended vaccines,” she advised.