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Childhood Ear Infections and ADHD: Why the link?

Posted May 22 2009 7:24pm
When we scan the literature for statistics on ADHD and search for early warning signs or tip-offs that a young child may be prone to the disorder, a few common trends seem to pop up again and again. One of these is the high rates of ADHD and attentional difficulties in kids suffering infection of the middle ear (Otitis Media) in early childhood.
During early childhood, the actual positioning of the ear canal is still adjusting, the pathway into the middle part of the ear is actually at a flatter angle than in a mature adult. This difference in positioning actually makes younger children much more prone to ear infections than older children or adults. Unfortunately, these infections may increase the risk of further complications down the road, including an increased onset of attentional difficulties, including ADHD. Here is what some of the literature has to say about the ADHD/ear infection connections:

Relationship between middle ear infections and inattention: The basis for inattentive ADHD?

The main culprit for attentional deficits is often believed to be the result of hearing loss (even mild), early in a child's life due to complications with the middle ear, including infections, allergy-related causes or build-up of fluids in the canal. As a result, the child begins to miss out on verbal cues, and does not develop the same level of response to an adult voice. Auditory deficiencies (including auditory processing disorders) may stem from this key development period, even if the hearing difficulties are only temporary.

Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of data associated with hearing loss due to middle ear complications can lead to language processing difficulties. We have seen how auditory processing disorders can often occur as a comorbid factor in ADHD, and may be linked to seemingly unrelated behaviors including comorbid anxiety and conduct-related disorders.

It is important to note, however, that other early childhood studies have not seen a link between infection and attentional difficulties (observed by parents, teachers, or clinicians).

Interestingly, environment may play a huge role in explaining this discrepancy between study results. One study found that children who had middle ear complications early on along with poor home environments were significantly more likely to develop attentional difficulties (along the lines of what would be classified as ADHD). Therefore, the effects of early ear infections on compromised attentional difficulties may be significantly reduced if a supportive home environment is maintained for a child. This is good news for parents of children with ear infections. But what about the hyperactive component of ADHD?

The link between hyperactive behaviors and middle ear complications: The basis for hyperactive/impulsive or combined subtype ADHD?

While it seems more intuitive that ear infections could lead to auditory problems and subsequent attentional difficulties (especially to auditory cues), the relationship between ear infections and hyperactivity is less inherently obvious. This association would be more relevant to the hyperactive/impulsive and combined subtypes of ADHD.

For over 30 years, researchers have linked high rates of ear infections and hyperactivity (this study used the term "minimal brain dysfunction", a phrase which this blogger has personal objections, nevertheless, it is a relatively common term in the literature). Later studies confirmed these findings, including one which reported the majority of children medicated for hyperactivity had a past history of 10 or more childhood ear infections. These numbers were in sharp contrast to the prevalence of ADHD in non-hyperactive children.

One thought may be that ADHD which includes a significant hyperactive component (as opposed to the more inattention-dominated form of the disorder) is more likely to be associated with comorbid disorders that correspond to ear infections. We have seen previously that comorbid disorders to ADHD are often related to particular subtypes.

For example, anxiety and depressive-like symptoms are often more likely to co-exist with primarily inattentive ADHD, while conduct disorders are more likely to co-exist if there is a high hyperactive/impulsive behavior (especially in the combined subtype). In general, the prevalence of more severe learning disabilities is often more associated with the inattention-dominant form of ADHD, while motor tics are more likely to be a hyperactive/impulsive trait. Carrying these associations in mind, are the studies linking early ear infections to hyperactivity simply due to associations with hyperactive subtype-dominated comorbid disorders?

One particular study found that children with hyperactivity vs. children with learning disabilities (and not hyperactivity, remember, learning disabilities are often seen at higher rates in the inattentive forms of the disorder) had similar numbers of total childhood ear infections. However, the timing of the infections did seem to matter. Children with hyperactivity experienced more recent ear infections (within the previous year) compared to the learning disability kids.

In other words, the question surrounding hyperactivity and ear infections may be more of a "when" question than a "how many" question. This may also suggest the possibility that hyperactivity due to middle ear troubles may be more of a temporary condition (this is supported by trends as an individual with ADHD ages, typically, the hyperactive symptoms of the disorder begin to subside as a child gets older and reaches adulthood, while the inattentive symptoms are more likely to plateau) as opposed to inattentive problems stemming from ear infections. Severity of the infections may also be a triggering cause or associated warning sign of an increased risk of developing hyperactive behaviors. The same study found that earaches and upper respiratory tract infections were higher in the hyperactive group than in the less-hyper learning disability group.

So what's going on with the connection between ear infections and ADHD-like hyperactivity?:
Although none of the above studies mentioned this possibility, as a blogger I have a few ideas on the subject. One of the most probable reasons for the ear infection/hyperactivity correlation may be due to the treatment process of ear infections. Let me explain:

Ear infections are typically treated with antibiotics. While these drugs work wonders for most infections, they also can disrupt the healthy bacterial counts in the digestive tract (that is, they kill off many of the "good" bacteria in our digestive systems in addition to the "bad" bacteria which may be causing our infections).

If the "good" digestive bacterial counts fall too low, the digestive process is compromised. The absorption and digestion process may suffer, as key nutrients may now be compromised (even if no major dietary changes occur). We have spoken extensively about nutrient deficiencies and ADHD as well as ADHD-related nutrition strategies in earlier posts.

Additionally, if good bacterial counts fall low, incomplete digestion results, which can lead to byproducts such as higher concentrations of organic acids, as well as incomplete breakdowns of potential allergens (which can increase sensitivity to food allergens, among others). These allergens and acids can actually begin to penetrate the blood brain barrier and show up in higher concentrations in the brain. Neurological disorders, including abnormal hyperactivity may actually be triggered by digestive imbalances (to a degree beyond what most of us realize). We are just beginning to recognize the huge degree of inter-relationship between the nervous and digestive systems, including brain-gut interactions.

There has been a longstanding "hot" discussion surrounding food allergies and ADHD (as well as possible connections between food allergies and disorders like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome), and the disrupted bacterial balance in the digestive system due to frequent antibiotic usage for recurrent ear infections may be a governing factor. This seems to make sense, especially considering the fact that hyperactivity was more linked to recent ear infections (and resultant antibiotic treatment), while the more inattentive behaviors and learning disorders seem to be a more long-standing symptom. Since bacterial counts begin to re-stabilize following antibiotic treatment (if a proper diet is maintained), the food-related hyperactivity may begin to subside, but for recent infections and treatments, the digestive bacteria may still be imbalanced, triggering an onset of ADHD-like hyperactive behaviors.

Of course this is just the blogger's personal hypothesis, but it at least seems plausible that the actual treatment for ear infections may play an equally strong role on the high rate of occurrence between ADHD and ear infections.
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