Objective. Otitis media is 1 of the most frequent diseases of early infancy and childhood and 1 of the most common reasons for children to visit a physician. In the past 2 decades, there has been a substantial increase in the diagnosis of otitis media worldwide. In the United States, 93% of all children have had at least 1 episode of acute otitis media (AOM) by 7 years of age. Otalgia is the hallmark of AOM. Most affected children either complain of earache or manifest behavior that the parents interpret as indicating ear pain. Treatment of the ear pain early in the course of AOM decreases both parental anxiety and the child’s discomfort and accelerates the healing process. The objective of this study was to determine the efficacy and tolerability of naturopathic versus traditional treatment for the management of otalgia commonly associated with AOM in children.
Methods. The study was designed as a double-blind trial in an outpatient community clinic. A total of 171 children who were aged 5 to 18 years and had otalgia and clinical findings associated with middle-ear infection were studied. The children were randomly assigned to receive treatment with Naturopathic Herbal Extract Ear Drops (NHED) or anesthetic ear drops, with or without amoxicillin. On enrollment, the children were assigned by computer-numbered randomization to receive NHED (contents: allium sativum, verbascum thapsus, calendula flores, hypericum perfoliatum, lavender, and vitamin E in olive oil) 5 drops 3 times daily, alone (group A) or together with a topical anesthetic (amethocaine and phenazone in glycerin) 5 drops 3 times daily (group B), or oral amoxicillin 80 mg/kg/d (maximum 500 mg/dose) divided into 3 doses with either NHED 5 drops 3 times daily (group C) or topical anesthetic 5 drops 3 times daily (group D). A double-blind design was used, and all ear drops were placed in identical bottles. Treatment was initiated by the nurse in all cases. A single physician (M.S.) evaluated and treated all of the patients included in the study and recorded all of the data. The presence or absence of ear pain was assessed over 3 days with a visual analog scale. Ear pain was assessed by a specially devised observational instrument based on previous reports. One side of the instrument consisted of a linear numbered scale, from 1 (no pain) to 10 (worst possible pain), and a corresponding color scale, ranging from blue to dark red. The reverse side contained a scale of 5 facial expressions, ranging from broad smile (no pain) to a sad and crying face (worst possible pain), and a corresponding color scale, ranging from blue to dark red.
Results. There were no significant between-group differences in patient age or gender, degree of fever, main symptoms, associated symptoms, and severity or laterality of acute otitis media. Each group had a statistically significant improvement in ear pain over the course of the 3 days. Patients who were given ear drops alone had a better response than patients who were given ear drops together with amoxicillin. Results were better in the NHED group than in the controls. Nevertheless, the findings indicated that the pain was mostly (80%) self-limited and could be explained simply by the time elapsed. The American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery guidelines recommend topical medications as the first line of treatment for ear pain in the absence of systemic infection or serious underlying disease. Because no evidence was found that systemic antibiotics alone improved treatment outcome, if antibiotics do not change the natural course of otitis media, then the main goal of treatment, as in the present study, should be to alleviate the ear pain. The alternative, naturopathic herbal extract medications, may offer many new possibilities in the management of ear pain associated with AOM. Primary care physicians should be aware that at least 10% of their patients may have tried 1 or more forms of alternative/complementary medicine before presenting for consultation. As it was widely reported in the medical literature, these herbal extracts have the potential to meet all of the requirements of appropriate medication that could be routinely used in the pediatric patient, namely in vitro bacteriostatic and bacteriocidal activity against common pathogens, immunostimulation ability, antioxidant activity, and anti-inflammatory effects. They are also well-absorbed with good penetration into the tissue surrounding the tympanic membrane. They have been found to enhance local immunologic activity. Finally, herbal extracts are well-tolerated (owing to their long elimination time), easy to administer, and less expensive than the new antibiotics. There are no documented side effects. On the basis of our findings that the group with the most significant treatment effects (NHED with topical anesthetic) explained only 7.3% of the total pain reduction, we propose that sometimes the general practitioner or pediatrician needs to give the human body a chance to repair itself. Nevertheless, if the physician believes that there is an indication for some treatment, especially if the parents are anxious, then a local treatment such as one used in our study might be adequate.
Conclusions. This study suggests that in cases of ear pain caused by AOM in children in which active treatment, besides a simple 2- to 3-day waiting period, is needed, an herbal extract solution may be beneficial. Concomitant antibiotic treatment is apparently not contributory.