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Researchers find link between cavities, ear infection

Case Western Reserve University : 19 March, 2002  (Technical Article)
Getting a baby weaned from the bottle may not only prevent tooth decay, but decrease the number of ear infections. In a preliminary study of 97 preschool children, researchers from Case Western Reserve University's School of Dentistry found that children with one or more cavities have higher numbers of ear infections than children with no caries (cavities). The association increases for younger children.
The dietary practice in common among the children with higher numbers of ear infections was sleeping with bottles filled with milk, juice or sweetened drinks, according to CWRU researchers Suchitra Nelson, CWRU assistant professor of community dentistry; Natalie Nechvatal, CWRU dental student; and Seth Canion, CWRU chair of the department of pediatric dentistry

Nechvatal reported the findings of their study, 'Dental caries and ear infections' at the recent annual meeting of the International Association for Dental Research in San Diego. The groundbreaking study was the first research on the connection between tooth decay and ear infections in small children.

The study examined the history of ear infections and dental caries for children between the ages of 2-5 years old with no major medical problems or craniofacial abnormalities.

Parents filled out a questionnaire as they entered the CWRU dental school's Irving and Jeanne Tapper Pediatric Dental Clinic at University Hospitals of Cleveland for care. They asked parents for the child's health, dental and diet history and demographics, as well as the number of ear infections within past year and over the child's lifetime. The questionnaire was given without any prior knowledge of the child's dental history. The researchers obtained information about the number of dental caries from dental charts.

Of the 97 children in the study, 41 percent of the children with caries had ear infections over the past year versus 36 without cavities. The lifetime history reflected similar findings with 33 percent of children with dental caries experiencing ear infections as opposed to 29 percent with no caries.

When the incidences of ear infections were broken out by age groups, the association became more obvious with 71 percent of two-year-olds experiencing ear infections and tooth decay while only 39 percent had ear infections and no decay. The percentage of children with no caries and ear infections remained at 36-39 percent between the ages of 2-5 years old, but for children with cavities the number dropped from 71 percent at age two to 41 percent by age five.

The public health message these researchers want parents to learn is not to put small children to bed with a bottle. If the child is reluctant to give up the bottle, the researchers suggest water instead of milk or other sweet drinks to prevent tooth decay and ear infections.

The pilot study provides groundwork for a future study that will examine the effectiveness of decreasing acute otitis media (ear infections) and dental caries by administering xylitol in chewing gum form or syrup to young children. Xylitol in chewing gum has proven to prevent either cavities or ear infections by inhibiting the growth of harmful streptococcus bacteria. The researchers want to take xylitol one step further in their next study to see its effectiveness in a child experiencing the two common childhood diseases.
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