Infant Ear Infections Becoming Less Common
Just under half of U.S. babies have them in first year now, compared to 60 percent in '80s and '90s
By Amy Norton
MONDAY, March 28, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Painful ear infections remain a scourge of childhood, but fewer American babies are getting them now compared with 20 years ago, new research shows.
The study didn't dig into the reasons for the decline. But experts say the credit likely goes to certain childhood vaccines, rising rates of breast-feeding and the drop in Americans' smoking rate.
The new research found that 46 percent of babies followed during 2008 to 2014 had a middle ear infection by the time they were 1 year old.
But while the infections were common, those rates were lower when compared against U.S. studies from the 1980s and '90s, the researchers added. Back then, around 60 percent of babies had suffered an ear infection by their first birthday, the study authors said.
The decline is not surprising, according to lead researcher Dr. Tasnee Chonmaitree, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston.
"This is what we anticipated," she said.
That's in large part because of a vaccine that's been available in recent years: the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, Chonmaitree said. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine protects against several strains of pneumococcal bacteria, which can cause serious diseases like pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream infections.
Those bacteria are also one of the major causes of children's middle ear infections, Chonmaitree said.
She added that yearly flu shots, which are now recommended for children starting at the age of 6 months, are probably helping, too: Ear infections often arise after a viral infection like the flu or common cold, the study authors said.
Vaccinations "could very well be one of the drivers" behind the decline in infant ear infections, agreed Dr. Joseph Bernstein, a pediatric otolaryngologist who wasn't involved in the study.
But there are other important factors, too, both he and Chonmaitree said -- namely, rising rates of breast-feeding and a decrease in babies' exposure to secondhand smoke.
"The data really do suggest that breast-feeding -- particularly exclusive breast-feeding in the first six months of life -- helps lower the risk of ear infections," said Bernstein, who is director of pediatric otolaryngology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, in New York City.