Q. My child suffers from recurring ear infections. Which are the best herbs or supplements to help prevent them?

A. Your child is far from alone. Every year, pediatricians diagnose more than 5 million ear infections in the United States, and 93 percent of children will have at least one ear infection by the time they enter kindergarten. Aside from pain, ear infections can cause irritability, difficulty sleeping, and even hearing problems.

Before you rush to the supplement aisle looking for an herbal cure, consider that children who experience recurrent ear infections are much more likely to have food allergies than other children. Although food allergies do not cause ear infections, they are believed to create inflammation in the internal ear and promote conditions favorable to infection. It may be wise to first track down food allergies with the help of your health care practitioner and then avoid any allergy-provoking foods. Exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke also increases the number of ear infections in children, so be sure that your child is not exposed to passive smoke.

Doses of a natural sugar called xylitol (found in raspberries and plums) may also be effective for preventing infections. Studies show that xylitol can inhibit the growth of infection-causing bacteria. For children 2 and older, small doses should be taken throughout the day for a total of 8.4 grams. Xylitol is available in powder, chewing gum, or syrup forms, and can be found at your natural products store. Also consider vitamin C and zinc for general immune support, which will help fend off infections. For children younger than 2, give 50–100 mg of liquid or chewable vitamin C daily and 5–10 mg of chewable zinc daily; for children 2 and up, give 100–200 mg of vitamin C and 10–20 mg of zinc.

If an ear infection has already set in, it’s not too late to find your child some relief. Herbal ear drops that contain a mixture of garlic, St. John’s wort, mullein, marigold, and lavender in an olive-oil base have been shown in clinical research to relieve the pain of ear infections.

This Q&A was written by Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, author of the The Soy Sensation (McGraw-Hill, 2002) and The Green Tea Book (Avery, 1998).