Preventing Ear Infections with Flu Vaccine

In stark contrast to some earlier studies, giving children flu vaccine does not help to prevent ear infections in young children, according to a large study published in the September 24, 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association. Earlier evidence had suggested a protective effect — perhaps a large protective effect — from the vaccine.

These earlier studies looked back at children who got the shot versus those who didn’t. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh looked more carefully at the question by choosing 786 children aged 6 months to 2 years and giving them all shots. Some received the true flu shot, others a placebo. Observers who didn’t know which child was in which group then followed the children for at least a year.

As expected, those who got the flu vaccine were less likely to get the flu. However, there was no difference between the two groups when it came to the percentage of children with at least one ear infection. There was no difference in average number of ear infections overall (either during flu season or in other parts of the year). There was no difference in length of ear infections, rounds of antibiotics prescribed, or the number of office visits to look for ear infections.

If you looked only at the older children in the study, age 19 to 24 months, the data suggested a possible decrease after the flu shot in the percentage who had at least one ear infection during the peak season (36.8% versus 54.3%) and during the following year (44.1% versus 65.7%). But the numbers were small enough in this segment that the clustering may have been entirely random.

We all want to prevent ear infections, especially in children who get them frequently. We want to decrease the rounds of antibiotics given to kids. But, while there are good reasons for children age 6 months to 2 years to get the flu vaccine, the best data we have does not support giving it to prevent ear infections.

Published on: September 29, 2003
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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