Studies: Chewing gum ingredient xylitol could prevent pediatric ear infections

WASHINGTON — There is "fair evidence" to support the use of xylitol, a natural sweetener used in gums and mints, to prevent inner ear infections in healthy children, according to a new evidence review.

Xylitol, also known as birch sugar, is used in chewing gum to prevent cavities and has been shown to have antibacterial properties in lab tests. In the new review, researchers at the University of Toronto sought to figure out whether there is sufficient evidence to support the use of xylitol to prevent ear infections, the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, reported Thursday. The review appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research.

Among three studies, there was a 25% overall reduction in the occurrence of ear infections in the xylitol group compared to the control group. The review’s lead author, Amir Azarpazhooh, suggested xylitol appears to work in healthy children by inhibiting bacteria.

Mark Shikowitz, vice chairman of otolaryngology with the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., hypothesized that gum itself appears to be beneficial as a way to prevent ear infections, possibly because chewing gum opens and closes the Eustachian tubes, the tubes that link the throat to the middle ear. However, Shikowitz said, too much gum chewing can be an issue: he often sees young patients who develop jaw problems as a result.

About 6-out-of-every-10 kids have an ear infection in their first year of life, and about 83% have one by 3 yearsold. Doctors typically treat ear infections with such antibiotics as penicillin and tetracycline.

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