Q. My 5-month-old son has a case of bronchitis, along with an ear infection. He's been pretty fussy, most likely due to the ear infection pain. My husband suggested putting a couple of drops of olive oil in his ear to relieve the pressure. I've heard of this home remedy before, but will it work? Also, could it cause any harm to my baby's hearing?
A. Throughout my career as a pediatrician, I've heard of all kinds of "remedies" that claim to cure or at least ease painful earaches. Many are old wives' tales, but my theory is, if it works and is harmless (which many home remedies are) by all means, try it. Ear pain is caused by the pressure of fluid against the eardrum. During a cold, the Eustachian tube—a tiny tube that connects the middle ear to the throat and equalizes air pressure on both sides of the eardrum—gets clogged with mucous, causing pain similar to the ear discomfort you get when changing altitudes during air travel. A few drops of warm oil in the ear canal, as your husband suggested, may ease pain by simply soothing the inflamed eardrum. Try this when your baby's asleep, to ensure that he'll lie still with his ear in an upright position for the few minutes needed to allow the oil to reach the eardrum. Also, be assured that this home remedy won't harm you baby's hearing—the auditory structures are located on the opposite side of where the oil is making contact with the eardrum. Aside from a warm oil treatment, here are some other ear pain relievers.
Let gravity be your child's friend.
Lay your baby to sleep with his sore ear facing up. Theoretically, this will relieve pressure by encouraging the fluid to drain away from the eardrum.
Have your child's ears examined by your healthcare provider.
Over-the-counter pain-relieving eardrops and home remedies can be fine for suspected middle-of-the-night earaches, but it's always best to have a doctor examine your baby's ears as soon as possible. If the eardrums are red and bulging from fluid pressure, your doctor may suggest a prescription-strength analgesic eardrop—in addition to appropriate antibiotic therapy—to lessen the pain. However, if your child's ears really aren't infected, eardrops and even home remedies may not be necessary; there are many unrelated reasons for a 5-month-old's fussiness. While placing a few drops of warm (not hot) olive oil or other vegetable oil in his ear canal is probably harmless, it's not a good idea to guess whether or not your baby has an ear infection.
A clear nose can clear the ears.
Sometimes hosing the nose (gently squirting salt water into your baby's nose, followed by gentle suction) can get nasal secretions moving, which will help to unplug and drain the Eustachian tubes.
Wiggle his ears.
One trick that I've used to relieve ear pain in children who suffer from chronic sinus infections and stuffy noses from allergies is gentle ear wiggling: Lightly pinch the earlobe between your thumb and forefinger, and pull out and down a few times. This may "pop" the Eustachian tube open, which will allow the fluid to drain. The maneuver is similar in effect to yawning, swallowing or nose-blowing to open your ears during air travel.
In addition to trying some of the techniques listed above, be sure to consult with your baby's doctor for his opinion on the potential causes of, and treatments for, those inevitable middle-of-the-night earaches.