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Taking extra vitamin D during the winter months might help prevent ear infections in children who are prone to them, reports a study in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. Acute otitis media (a bacterial middle ear infection) is a common condition in young children that may cause considerable pain, fever, irritability, difficulty hearing, pus-filled discharge from the ear, and/or headache. Babies may only be able to communicate their discomfort by crying or pulling at the affected ear.
Most cases of otitis media originate from a viral infection, such as the common cold. Children are especially prone to developing middle ear infections, mostly because their eustachian tubes aren't able to drain as efficiently as adults'.
Doctors may prescribe prophylactic antibiotics for children with frequent ear infections, but this isn't always effective and can lead to antibiotic resistance.
Studies have shown that vitamin D has profound effects on the immune system, and low levels are tied to an increased risk of respiratory infections.
The study looked at 116 children between one and five years old who had a history of recurrent acute otitis media (more than three infections in the last six months or more than four infections in the last year) to see what effect taking vitamin D during the winter had on their risk of developing future ear infections. The children were given either 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day or placebo for four months.
"The mean baseline vitamin levels in the children enrolled in our study were only slightly lower than 30 ng/mL," which suggests mild vitamin D-deficiency, but almost all of those who did not receive supplementation had significantly lower levels at the end of the study period," said lead study author, Dr. Paulo Marchisio. "This clearly confirms that vitamin D synthesis is greatly reduced during the winter and strongly suggests the need for systematic vitamin D supplementation, especially in people who experience limited exposure to sunlight because they live in northern latitudes and/or in geographic areas subject to high levels of air pollution."
Besides vitamin D, some other promising strategies for preventing childhood ear infections are on the horizon.
One of these is a nonabsorbable sugar called xylitol. The substance is widely used in chewing gum and added to toothpaste as a sweetener that has the added benefit of cavity prevention. Recent studies have shown that xylitol, taken as syrup or chewed as gum, can significantly reduce the number of ear infections in susceptible children, also decreasing the need for antibiotics to treat infections.
(Pediatr Infect Dis J 2013;DOI: 10.1097/INF.0b013e31829be0b0)