8 Tips for Treating Ear Infections During Pregnancy
Pregnancy brings on a lot of change. These changes are not just in your physical appearance, but also in the way in which your body functions. Throughout pregnancy, your body's immune system weakens in order to prioritize the baby. Due to this alteration, you are more susceptible to becoming sick.
Due to these lowered immunity functions and hormone changes, many women experience Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) disorders during pregnancy. ENT issues are some of the more common ailments that plague expectant mothers. These include things like hearing loss, nasal blockage, vocal changes, earaches, and ear infections.
We’ll discuss why ear problems and infections occur during pregnancy, and how to safely treat these conditions.
Causes Of Ear Infections And Ear Pain During Pregnancy
The most common type of ear infection is one that impacts the middle ear. This is the space located behind the eardrum. Officially referred to as acute otitis media, this infection is normally caused by the presence of bacteria or a viral infection, usually following a cold or respiratory illness. For those with swollen adenoids (lymph nodes), it is actually quite common for the infectious agent to spread from the throat to this part of the ear.
You can also have swelling in the eustachian tube, which is the narrow passageway between your middle ear and your throat (located in the inner ear). When this occurs, it can lead to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear. This obstruction can cause an earache or an infection. Earwax buildup can also cause a blockage of the outer ear canal, which will display similar symptoms.
Finally, a less common ear infection is called otitis externa or swimmer's ear. This affects the outer ear canal, and as you may have guessed, it normally appears after swimming. Why? When you submerge your head underwater and the moisture is allowed to sit in your ear canal, bacteria and fungi can begin to grow. Thankfully, this can be easily prevented by wearing earplugs while swimming and by using rubbing alcohol to clean out your ears after engaging in water activities.
Symptoms of ear infections include pain, itching, headache, vertigo, drainage, hearing loss, nausea, and pressure. Health experts at the Mayo Clinic note that "generally, an ear infection will improve within the first couple days and clear up within one to two weeks without any treatment." However, if a fever arises, it is always best to err on the side of caution and get checked out.
Why Are Ear, Nose, and Throat Issues Common During Pregnancy?
First and foremost, during pregnancy, your body's blood volume will increase by almost 50 percent! This astonishing influx occurs so that your body can effectively support the needs of your growing baby. The added blood flow causes the water volume in your body to increase by over two gallons.
This retention of additional fluids is the reason why you may notice that your nose is stuffy more often and that you have a higher prevalence of postnasal drip.
Unfortunately, it can also lead to fluid buildup in your ears. While this will not always bring about infection, it can cause extreme discomfort.
Moreover, pregnancy brings on an influx of hormones, making you more susceptible to illness during pregnancy. This is because an "expectant mother’s immune system adjusts to prevent her body from rejecting the fetus". As mentioned above, if you contract an ENT illness, it is not out of the norm for this to spread to the ears.
8 Home Remedies for Treating Ear Infections During Pregnancy
Ear infections can often be cured without a doctor, by using simple remedies you likely already have at home. Here are a few simple remedies to treat the symptoms of an ear infection and relieve earache.
1. Take Approved Pain Relievers
If you contract a viral ear infection or have an earache during pregnancy, it is extremely important to pay close attention to the medications that they take because many of these drugs can have a detrimental impact on your baby. The only over-the-counter pain reliever that is considered generally safe throughout the entire 40 weeks of gestation is Tylenol (acetaminophen).
Why? Research has shown that "exposure to aspirin or NSAIDs during the first trimester of pregnancy was associated with the risk of gastroschisis (aspirin), cardiac malformations (NSAIDs) and orofacial malformations (naproxen)." In laymen's terms, a side effect of taking these normally safe pain pills is disruptions in your child's development, which can lead to detrimental birth defects.
In case you don't know, the most common over-the-counter NSAIDs are Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Despite the safety of acetaminophen, always talk to your health care provider about the proper dosage before taking any type of medication.
2. Consider An Antihistamine Or Decongestant
Many times, ear pain can come about due to allergies. When this congestion occurs in your sinuses and nasal passages, it can cause pressure and discomfort. Taking antihistamines and decongestants that are designed to dry up liquids that build up in your body can provide you with rapid relief. Claritin or Alavert (loratadine), Benedryl, Allegra (fexofenadine), or Zyrtec (cetirizine) are all considered relatively safe during pregnancy.
Additionally, Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) has also been shown to help with earaches. However, this should only be used for a week's time or less unless otherwise directed. Again, always speak to your doctor before taking any medication during pregnancy.
3. Apply A Warm Compress
When infections set in, proper blood circulation is key for healing. Studies published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that "the physiological effects of heat therapy include pain relief and increases in blood flow, metabolism, and elasticity of connective tissues." Thus, a warm compress is a simple way to open up your blood vessels and allow white blood cells, which help to fight infections, to get there sooner.
Remember that while heat is a fantastic modality to promote healing, you want to avoid burning yourself. Therefore, make sure that your heating pad is on a low setting and wrap your warm compress in a towel before applying it to your ear when treating ear infections during pregnancy.
4. Use Ear Drops
Different solutions can be used as ear drops to break down earwax buildup that may be causing pain or discomfort. Here are a few recipes for eardrops that you can make at home to treat ear infections.
Rubbing Alcohol & White Vinegar
If you find yourself with a case of swimmer's ear while pregnant, one of the best home remedies is to create a mixture of rubbing alcohol and distilled white vinegar at a one-to-one ratio. These DIY ear drops can help to dry out your outer ear canal and kill any bacteria. This is thanks to vinegar's natural antibacterial properties!
In contrast, for those who have a blockage due to a buildup of ear wax, you can also use a dropper to apply a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to your ear. When conducting this method, turn your head sideways, apply the antiseptic, and then allow it to sit for ten seconds before quickly flipping your head over. This will soften and break down the earwax, clearing out the blockage. Many over-the-counter ear drops contain hydrogen peroxide, making them another easy remedy.
Antibiotic Ear Drops
Finally, when a bacterial infection is present, your doctor will prescribe antibiotic ear drops. Remember to always inform your health care provider about your pregnancy. While your OBGYN knows of your condition, if you are in your first trimester, the otolaryngologist may not be aware of your condition.
5. Adjust Your Sleep Position
Another simple way to reduce the pain from an earache is to avoid sleeping with the affected ear against your pillow. This will allow fluids to drain more effectively and it will prevent you from applying more pressure to the region.
6. Wear Your Nightguard
For those who suffer from Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) disorders such as bruxism, your earache may actually be pain from grinding your teeth. If you are experiencing discomfort in your temples and ears, talk to your dentist about getting a nightguard to help reduce jaw tension. If you already have one, make a point to wear it every night.
7. Chew Gum
Air pressure changes can also trigger earaches, which is why one of the simplest solutions to the pain and pressure is to pop in a piece of bubble gum! By opening and closing your jaw, you open the eustachian tubes in your ears, removing the pressure difference on the two sides of your eardrum.
While we all expect this problem to occur when flying on an airplane, you can also experience this sensation when changing altitudes on a car trip, riding on an elevator, or submerging yourself deep enough in a body of water.
8. Get Rest And Hydrate
Finally, as with any other illness, rest and hydration are paramount to getting better faster. These are also extremely important daily steps to take while pregnant, whether or not you are sick. Your body is going through a lot of change and recent studies actually show that pregnancy "demands about the same level of energy as long athletic endurance events."
What Not To Do When Experiencing An Ear Infection
When earaches and ear infections during pregnancy occur, it is imperative that you not try to manually clear out debris that may be causing a blockage. This could push the earwax further into the ear, or worse, puncture the eardrum.
Additionally, try to avoid getting the ear canal wet in any way. This can lead to bacteria growth. If you need to dry out your ear after showering, gently move your head side to side to help drain out any excess water.
Furthermore, if you are given antibiotic drops for a middle ear infection, do not stop your antibiotic treatment early just because symptoms have gone away. Follow your physician's medical advice and finish the medication.
Finally, do not ignore troubling symptoms. While it may seem like a minor infection in the grand scheme of things, it is extremely important that you prioritize your health and wellness during pregnancy. Anything that affects you will also have an impact on your baby.
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. ENT Changes of Pregnancy and Its Management. 2014.
- Dorfner, Micah. Do Ear Infections Always Need to be Treated with Antibiotics? 2016.
- Digitale, Erin. Immune system changes during pregnancy are precisely timed. 2017.
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Major malformations after first-trimester exposure to aspirin and NSAIDs. 2008.
- pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. 2014.
- Price, Michael. Study of marathon runners reveals a ‘hard limit' on human endurance. 2019.
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Heidi is an experienced journalist who worked in the television news industry for a decade, where she gave local forecasts as an award-winning meteorologist, was a reporter, hosted a lifestyle show, and contributed to a weekl