Air pollution harms more than your lungs

Is poor air quality giving your child ear infections?

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

As parents, many of you are well familiar with ear infections. They may start with mild discomfort and a little tugging on the ear but can quickly blossom into severe ear pain for your child and sleepless nights for everyone in the house.

In addition to all the inflammation, sleep loss and mounting crankiness, ear infections account for more pediatrician visits and antibiotic prescriptions than any other condition. All told, the United States spends about $5 billion each year diagnosing and treating ear infections. So although ear infections may each be considered a relatively minor illness, given all the cumulative pain and cost they can generate, they represent a major burden on kids, parents and the healthcare system.

While entirely preventing ear infections is impossible, we can reduce their incidence by keeping children away from the environmental factors known to trigger them. First among these triggers is cigarette smoke. In addition to harming lungs and hearts, cigarette smoke, direct or second-hand, irritates the respiratory tract. The body’s response to this irritation is to produce excessive mucus, which then carries the smoke’s toxins directly into the middle ear. Studies have shown that exposure to smoke can increase a person’s chances of getting an ear infection by 48 percent in children and up to 80 percent in infants. In addition, smoking during pregnancy appears to also dramatically increase the risk of a child getting an ear infection in the first few years of life, providing yet another reason for pregnant women to avoid cigarette smoke. Children who are breastfed or receive Prevnar, a vaccine that protects against a pneumococcus infection, are thought to be at reduced risk.

Aaron Bernstein, MD,MPH

Though tougher to recognize and avoid than cigarette smoke, air pollution is another contributing factor to the sheer number of ear infections. A recent study from the University of British Columbia reports that exposure to air pollutants significantly increases the risk of ear infections. The findings build on prior studies that have shown that children exposed to higher levels of oxides of nitrogen (also called “NOx,”) and microscopic bits of organic matter in the air known as “PM 2.5”, are more likely to get ear infections.

The good news is that air quality is getting better for most Americans and concentrations of NOx and PM2.5 seem to be on the decline thanks to the Clean Air Act. This benefits all Americans, but especially kids: aside from their role in ear infections, PM 2.5 and NOx inflame lungs and are major contributors to asthma cases, which currently affect over 7 million children in the United States.

The success of the Clean Air Act is impressive, but we still have a long way to go. In the past 30 years American’s per capita electricity use rose 40 percent, and about half of that electricity was generated by plants that run on burning coal, a major source of air pollution. Regulation ensuring that the byproducts of all that electricity is as clean as possible is a step in the right direction, but as a society we all need to do all we can to limit our energy consumption. In doing so we’ll improve the quality of our air, and likely decreases the amount of ear and respiratory infections affecting so many of our children. It not only makes for sound judgment, but sound nights of sleep for millions of parents and their children.

One thought on “Air pollution harms more than your lungs

  1. Prevnar vaccine was not being given to children because it was causing ear infections about 2 years ago…
    You don’t need antibiotics to get rid of them either, some garlic and olive oil in the ear or a trip to the chiropractor for an adjustment works better than the antibiotics.

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