Childhood Ear Infections Becoming Less Common; Likely Due to Vaccinations and Breastfeeding, Suggests New Study

ear infection
March 28, 2016

GALVESTON, TEXAS — In a newly published study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) have found that ear infection rates among young children in the US are on the decline.  The results, suggest researchers, are likely due to increases in vaccinations and breastfeeding.

In the study, researchers followed more than 360 families with infants from 2008 to 2014. They reviewed the family’s medical history and monitored the children’s health from birth through their first birthday, noting any time they developed an ear infection. Nose and throat mucus samples were also taken regularly for examination.

When the researchers compared their results to similar studies conducted decades earlier, they discovered that rates for ear infection (otitis media) had dropped significantly.

By 3 months of age, 6 percent of children in the study had a confirmed ear infection, compared with 18 percent in earlier studies.  At age 6 months, approximately 9 percent vs previous 23 percent with confirmed infection. By 1 year, the current study found approximately 46 percent had experienced confirmed ear infection vs 62 percent in earlier studies.


“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. 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.” —Tasnee Chonmaitree, MD, Lead Study Author


Encouraging Results 



Tasnee Chonmaitree, MD

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has noted that the number of office visits for childhood ear infections have gone down nearly 30% in the US over the past 20 years. However, the rates of antibiotic prescriptions has remained essentially the same, despite doctors being urged to be more cautious in their use of antibiotics as a first course of action against ear infections and other illnesses.

According to the latest study, as well as previous studies, increased rates of vaccination have likely contributed to the reduction in infection. As with the current researchers, they cited the increased uptake of vaccines, specifically the 7-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7), which is designed to protect against seven different strains of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, which is a common bacterial cause of otitis media.

Additionally, more frequent annual flu vaccines for children have also likely contributed in the decline.

It has been known for some time that breastfed children are less likely to develop otitis media, and with rates of breastfeeding having increased steadily in recent decades, this too is a likely contributing factor to the steady decrease in childhood ear infections.

In addition to lead authorTasnee Chonmaitree, other contributing authors to the study included:  Rocio Trujillo, Kristofer Jennings, Pedro Alvarez-Fernandez, Janak Patel, Michael Loeffelholz, Johanna Nokso-Koivisto, Reuben Matalon, Richard Pyles, Aaron Miller and David McCormick. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).


Source: UTMB; image courtesy wikipedia


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