Childhood ear infections are the number one reason young children are taken to their pediatrician.

They're also the top reason young children are given antibiotics.

However, vaccines, an increase in breastfeeding, and a decrease in smoking may be slowly reducing the number of ear infections in young children.

ear infection vaccine

A study released today concluded the incidence of ear infections in the first year of children’s lives has decreased from rates in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, other factors such as the number of kids enrolled in day care may be offsetting that progress a bit.

Also, one expert interviewed by Healthline felt the sample size and diversity in the study group was perhaps not large enough to be conclusive.

Read more: Get the Facts on Ear Infections »

What researchers found

The findings by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch were published today in the journal Pediatrics.

In their study, the researchers followed 367 infants through their first year of medical care.

The data revealed that 46 percent of those children experienced acute otitis media (AOM), or a middle ear infection, by the time they were 12 months old.

Dr. Tasnee Chonmaitree, the director of the university’s pediatric infectious disease fellowship program and a lead author on the story, told Healthline that rate was lower than the incidences of childhood ear infections in the 1980s and 1990s.

During those decades, Chonmaitree said, between 60 and 62 percent of infants developed AOM in their first year.

“Medical progress has been made,” Chonmaitree said.

However, Dr. Samantha Anne, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, told Healthline that only 20 percent of the infants in the recent study attended day care.

She said the national average is closer to 30 percent and that factor may affect the results a bit.

Anne said she hasn’t experienced a decline in the number of patients she sees in the eight years she’s been at the Cleveland children’s medical facility.

“This is a situation in which the study needs to be taken in the context of its study population,” she said. “I think we need a larger scale study.”

Read more: Delaying Vaccinations Is Not OK, Doctors Say »

Vaccines and other helpful factors

Chonmaitree and Anne are in agreement on the main factors that can reduce the risk of childhood ear infections.

At the top of list are childhood vaccinations.

Both women noted a vaccine against common bacteria has been developed since the 1980s. They said that has lowered the number of upper respiratory infections that can lead to earaches.

“There’s no question about it,” said Anne. “Vaccines help reduce the number of childhood illnesses.”

Another leading preventative measure is the increase in the number of women breastfeeding.

Chonmaitree said children who are breastfed receive more nutrients and immunity from their mothers. This can help reduce the number of infections.

“The longer the breastfeeding goes on, the better the protection,” said Chonmaitree.

Anne did caution that women who aren’t able to breastfeed should not worry because there are other preventative measures that can be taken that will help lessen the risk of infection.

Among them is having a smoke-free home.

Both doctors said tobacco smoke might cause irritations and infections.

Exposure to other children can also increase the likelihood of ear infections.

That exposure can come from siblings or from other children attending day care or preschool. Anne said despite that risk parents shouldn’t necessarily shy away from putting their children in prekindergarten programs.

Some parents need to enroll their children because they’re working. These programs also provide children with important skills.

“You have to weigh the gains versus the risks,” said Anne.

Read more: High Rates of Drug-Resistant Bacteria Found in Children »

Why it’s important

Decreasing the number of ear infections in children is important for several reasons.

One is that it’s the leading reason children end up in the doctor’s office. It may be costly, and it’s time-consuming for both the parents and healthcare providers.

Ear infections are also the number one reason antibiotics are prescribed for young children, which may also be expensive. Antibiotics may also lead to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Persistent ear infections may also lead to surgery.

Chonmaitree and Anne both say it’s important for parents to continue to vaccinate their children and for new vaccines to be developed.

In addition to vaccinating, breastfeeding, and creating a smoke-free environment, parents should not send their child to day care or school when they’re sick.

“There are simple things that can be done to lower the incidences,” said Anne.