Chinese Medicine for Swimmer’s Ear/Ear Infection and Summer Colds

Summer is a wonderful time to be outdoors and enjoy the sun.  Many of us splash around in swimming pools for fun and exercise.  Children take swim classes and compete.  Swimming is a wonderful whole-body workout and learning to swim is vital for water safety.  However, many children end up getting swimmer’s ear, ear infections and/or colds because they are in the water so much.  Why does Jimmy get swimmer’s ear or an infection but Johnny practicing next to him does not?  This is directly related to a child’s constitution and daily dietary habits.

Cold-Damp Environment and Ear Problems

Children who are prone to swimmer’s ear and ear infections from swimming tend to have a weak constitution, "Cold" constitution, or their diets promote these ear problems.  (There are children that always run hot, no matter what, even in the dead of winter, and then there are children who always tend to run cool or cold.  There are also children who are in the middle.  When I say “Cold" constitution, I am talking about those children who easily run cold – cold hands, cold feet – in particular.)  In Chinese Medicine, we consider water to have a Cold, and in particular, Damp quality.  Be in a cold, wet, damp environment long enough and the body’s immune system begins to slow down because that environment, in this case, the pool or ocean, is so overwhelmingly stronger and bigger than a child.  So that Cold, Damp, wet energy literally seeps into the body, slowing down the child’s metabolic activity.  This creates a “Damp” condition in the ear, like a mold or mildew growing in a unventilated, damp environment.  Though the body tries to fight this Cold-Damp pathogen, if a child’s immune system is Cold or weakened from swimming, its attempts at fighting off the pathogen is weak.  Instead of being able to properly discharge and eliminate the Cold-Damp pathogen through natural means of lymphatic drainage and heated metabolic activity of dissipating fluids, this weak response turns the Cold-Damp pathogen into a lodged ear infection instead.    

Diet and Ear Problems

The way diet plays into ear problems is similar to the above-mentioned Cold-Damp environment.  The food children consume on a daily basis promotes, from a Chinese Medicine perspective, a cold, damp environment within their bodies.  Foods that are Cold and Damp in Chinese medicine are sweets, juices, carbohydrates, iced drinks, ice cream, nuts and nut butters, processed meats, and dairy products.  Isn’t this what most American children eat and drink on a regular basis?  A child who eats these foods regularly already has a Cold-Damp environment in their system.  This will manifest in the child as cold, clammy hands and/or feet, runny nose, tummy aches, irregular bowel movements, frequent colds and ear infections, phlegmy cough, and/or asthma.  These Cold-Damp prone children then enter the pool, and after repeated exposure to a cold, wet, environment--BAM--the double whammy of Cold-Damp from outside and inside the body turns into ear problems.  The ears are affected by swimming because there is constant assault of water entering the ears, which is not a normal occurrence.  Again, liken it to mold or mildew, i.e., improper water metabolism, happening in a dark, damp, unventilated environment.

Air Conditioners are Cold, Too

Don’t forget air conditioners!  The temperature rises and many of us naturally turn on the A/C to cool down.  This is another Cold environment a child walks into, often right after playing in water.  When a child enters an air conditioned car or house and his/her pores are open from swimming and sweating, this unnatural cold air penetrates into the skin and attacks the body further, festering into an ear infection.  A/C in particular is very damaging to children, and especially to a child with a Cold constitution, because of the unnatural bone-seeping cold air it creates. 

Summer Colds

If you’ve gotten my gist of Cold-Damp and children, you probably already know what I’m going to say about summer colds.  Children who catch summer colds often have this interplay of a weak or Cold constitution and Cold-Damp-heavy diet, plus playing, sleeping or sitting in an unnaturally cold (i.e., air conditioned) environment. 

Chinese Medicine to the Rescue!

Chinese Medicine is extremely effective in combating ear infections, swimmer’s ear and summer colds.  To treat these kinds of conditions stemming from Cold-Damp, we practitioners of Chinese Medicine look to the Law of Nature first.  What in nature combats coldness and damp?  Heat.  Heat warms and counteracts coldness.  Dry, warm air purges moisture and dampness.  Therefore, in treating children, we will often use Warm/Hot medicinals that contain Cinnamon and Ginger, and techniques that use moxa to treat a child with these conditions.  Shonishin and/or acupuncture will also help to dispel Cold-Damp as well as improve fluid and blood circulation, and strengthen the constitution of the child so that the child’s own body can fight these infections.  Depending on the severity of the condition, or the chronicity of the condition, one to five treatments often resolves these conditions, along with administration of herbs and changes to the child’s diet.  But before you come in to see me, try the home remedies below to prevent these summer ailments.

Home Remedies

Here are some very effective strategies available at home to help combat swimmer’s ear, ear infections and summer colds:

  • Dry off children immediately (including their hair) after they’re done swimming and change them out of wet, cold swimsuits into dry clothes.  If they tend to be Cold, I suggest dressing them in long pants and long sleeve shirts or a light summer jacket or sweater as well to help conserve body heat.  Use a blow dryer to dry them completely if you’re going to an air conditioned environment right after swimming or the sun is not out that day -- or let them dry and warm up completely in the hot sun before going into a cold car or house.  The sun is a powerful tool to help Cold or Weak children really warm up from the core of the body.
  • In addition to drying their hair, use a blow dryer (on low heat setting) to warm the back of their ears where they attach to the head, the back of their necks, their bellies, their lower backs, and their wrists and ankles.  Do this right after swimming and before they go to bed.  Blow drying these body points has a wonderfully warming effect on the whole body and helps to maintain proper fluid drainage and keep their immune system strong.
  • Have children sip warm honey water (babies should be one or older), cinnamon water, or ginger water from their sippy cups after swimming.  Seep a cinnamon stick and/or pieces of ginger in hot water for 5 -10 minutes, let it cool down a bit, remove the cinnamon or ginger, and then fill a Thermos sippy cup for the child to drink from after swimming.
  • Avoid dairy, ice cream, sugary foods and iced drinks surrounding the days that your children swim.  Instead, feed them hot porridge, oatmeal, soups, warm drinks, beef and lamb.  Cook often with warming ingredients like garlic, ginger, and onion to warm up the foods they are consuming.
  • Employ topical Swimmer’s Ear drops right after swimming.  One or two drops in each ear.
  • Dress children protectively at night: have them wear socks to sleep in and tuck their shirts into their pants to protect tummies from Cold and Wind (i.e., fans, A/C, open windows) while they’re sleeping.  Ideally, don’t turn on fans or A/C while sleeping and if you must have a window open, don’t place a child’s feet or head right by the window.
  • Keep the A/C to a minimum.  Keep it at a temperature just enough to get rid of the oppressive heat or humidity, but don’t make it Arctic cold.  If your child’s hands, feet or nose are cold to the touch while in the car or house, you know you’ve got the A/C on too cold.  Reduce the A/C and warm up your child in the sun or the blow dryer to prevent the Cold from seeping deeper into the body.
  • Consider using a fan instead of the A/C, or combine a fan and the A/C.  Use the A/C just to rid the environment of humidity or oppressive heat, and use the fan to keep the air circulating and cool.  Fans are a more natural alternative to cooling the body, so if at all possible, employ just natural air, letting the fan cool you and your child. 
  • Let kids play a lot in the sun to really collect the wonderfully nature-derived warming energy of the sun.  Modern kids don’t get enough sun and nature time.

Our bodies are highly attuned to nature.  In summer, our pores naturally open to help keep our bodies cool by allowing us to sweat more easily.  And summer is when our bodies are supposed to detoxify naturally.  It is important to sweat during the summer because this allows us to also expel toxicity and gunk that has built up over the previous winter and spring, cleaning us out to prepare us for the fall and coming winter again.  We can collect and harness the warming energy of the sun to detox unwanted elements and effectively strengthen the body.  Children who are prone to allergies and asthma in the fall and winter will really do well to play in the sun and sweat during the summer.  This helps them strengthen their constitution during the abundant warm energy of the summer while dispelling toxic heat, inflammation, and mucus/phlegm build up through sweating.  (But of course, do utilize smart sun strategies for your child!)

An Acupuncturist's Re-Awakening - Japanese Acupuncture and Shonishin

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my relatives in Japan last summer, and during my visit, I was very lucky to study Japanese acupuncture from a master acupuncturist as well as pediatric acupuncture from an acupuncture organization.

I observed the amazing acupuncture and moxibustion skills and bed-side manners of Edward Obaidey, a British acupuncturist who's charm and humor belies the deep understanding, knowledge, and skills he has of this ancient medicine.  He studied and graduated from a Oriental Medicine college in Tokyo and has been successfully, and busily, treating patients for well over 20 years in Tokyo.  I can only begin to imagine the dedication and commitment he's had to this medicine, having to learn this medicine not in his native language, but in Japanese, and not only that, in ancient Japanese, as classic Oriental Medical texts were all written in old Japanese (it's like trying to study medicine reading Shakesperean English!).  He is a master and teacher in his own right, but he is also the dedicated apprentice and translator of one of the grandmasters of Japanese Acupuncture, Ikeda Masakazu sensei.  

Eddie sensei jokingly scolding me about something

Eddie sensei jokingly scolding me about something

Eddie Sensei's office happen to coincidentally be just a few stations away from my relative's house, so I observed him and was able to participate in some of the intakes while I visited him for 3 days.   The first thing I noticed as I climbed the 2 flights of stairs to his office was the strong smell of burning herb smoke.  Though Americans confuse this smell to marijuana smoke smell, it's actually the smell of moxa, or the burning of dried herbs called Mugwort/Aiye.  Moxa, or moxibustion as it's also known, is an ancient Oriental Medicine treatment protocol and has the ability to warm the channels, strengthen the blood and improve the flow of qi in the body.  It also helps to stop bleeding, banish cold from the body,  and is an excellent treatment in itself or with herbs and acupuncture to treat colds/flu, digestive disorders, back pain,  muscle tension,  headaches, anxiety, inflammation, carpal tunnel syndrome, female health problems, and much, much more.

Eddie Sensei extensively uses moxa in his office - pretty much on every patient.  It is here where I really saw and experienced the power of moxa.  I had the opportunity to be treated by him, and wow, what a paradigm shifting experience!  A true master indeed.  With the combination of his amazing acupuncture skills and the use of moxa by his assistants, I felt literally years of blockages melt away!  Though I had learned about moxa in my Chinese Medicine training, what was taught at school was very minimal, and nothing to the extent of how Eddie sensei uses it.   Thanks to Eddie sensei, I have now become a true believer in the power of moxa, and I now teach all my patients to use this at home (I unfortunately can't use moxa in my office as the building does not allow the use of moxa).  I use moxa on a very regular basis on myself at home, too, and I notice how my stamina and immune system has gone up and keeps me in check while the rest of the world is catching colds left and right.

I had also dabbled in some Japanese acupuncture knowledge while I was still an acupuncture student, but observing Eddie sensei resolved me to dedicate my time now to learning the art of acupuncture Japanese style.   Let me give you a quick summary of acupuncture.  There are three main types of acupuncture practiced in the United States: Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, and probably in that order in terms of familiarity and usage.  Acupuncture started in China, but as Chinese philosophy and culture spread to East Asia, Koreans and Japanese appropriated the medicine to their cultural beliefs and style.  Though simplistic in explanation, it is generally acknowledged that Chinese and Korean acupuncture tends to use a more aggressive style of needling, often requiring the use of manipulating the sensation of qi in the body after the insertion of needles, using thicker needles and more number of needles.  Japanese acupuncture, on the other hand, uses much thinner needles, very little to no insertion of needles into the skin, and much less number of needles used.  Japanese acupuncture also uses an extensive amount of palpation (using ones hands to examine the body for the use of disease diagnosis and treatment), which allows the practitioner to get immense amount of data about the patient's health and musculo-neuro-skeletal condition.  Though my acupuncture style was becoming more and more gentle as time had progressed, I am now embarking on a whole new style of acupuncture, which often doesn't even require the insertion of needle into the skin but just the touch of the needle to the skin, as well as using even thinner needles and other manipulation of the needle and palpatory skills.  I do a lot more palpation, asking, feeling, and staying with the body (while you rest or even fall asleep!) even after the needles are in to make sure I am seeing changes happening in the body the way it's suppose to via the pulse and skin tone.

Shonishin tools.  photo image: lhasaoms.com

Shonishin tools.  photo image: lhasaoms.com

Along with meeting Eddie Sensei, I was also extremely lucky, that on my very last day in Tokyo, I was able to attend a pediatric workshop organized by a group of Japanese acupuncturists.  This group's mission is to spread the knowledge of Oriental Medicine in Japan, and in order to do so, they modernized the ancient pediatric acupuncture technique called shonishin (literally means pediatric needle: shoni=pediatric, shin=needle).  Shonishin is practiced by acupuncturists who specialize in pediatric care, and in order to treat children, the Japanese in 17th century came up with specialized tools that scrape, rub, tap, and treat the body using blunt tools.  

The organization I took the workshop from wants to make shonishin and its health benefits accessible to all, so they took the concepts of shonishin and some of its tools and modernized it, using tools easily found in all homes: teaspoon, hairdryer, and toothbrush.  They call their shonishin style "SkinTouch", emphasizing  the importance of skin to skin contact and touching of the child's skin by the parent for developmental purposes.  The workshop was very fun and easy to learn, and I now use this as a basis in all of my pediatric patients, teaching parents basic shonishin massage so that they can do it at home on a daily basis.  The effects of shonishin massage is remarkably effective.  Just with shonishin, glycerin-based herbal medicine and a change in the child's diet, and symptoms the baby or child was coming in for resolves rather quickly or is significantly reduced.  Not only that, the child actually starts to get healthy, and their constitution actually improves with continuous shonishin treatments.  I have had great success in particular with children/babies suffering from asthma, rhinitis, digestive ailments, hyperactivity/hypersensitivity just using these protocols.  I am excited I have yet another needle-free tool in my repertoire to treat children!

 

One of the two acupuncturists teaching us about SkinTouch

One of the two acupuncturists teaching us about SkinTouch

A parent trying the hairdryer technique (In lieu of moxa) while the acupuncturist teacher engages the baby

A parent trying the hairdryer technique (In lieu of moxa) while the acupuncturist teacher engages the baby

Practicing SkinTouch

Practicing SkinTouch

I am so grateful I continue to have the opportunities to meet wonderful masters now that I've become a healthcare practitioner, allowing me to deepen my knowledge, my skills, and effectiveness in treating patients who walk in the door.  I don't know if it's because I am part Japanese, but it seems I get drawn to the gentle style of Oriental Medicine via Japanese practitioners, starting with Dr. Mikio Sankey, and now Eddie Sensei, and most recently, just two weekends ago, with Ikeda Masakazu Sensei at his seminar in San Francisco.  Wow, wow, wow.  I feel so energized once again because through this seminar, I feel I can provide even more for my patients and be even more effective with my treatments.  And I am already seeing it two weeks since the seminar with the results I am seeing with my patients.  I am humbled and grateful I can continue to improve myself to be of service to my patients.

Ikeda Sensei (L) teaching, and Eddie Sensei (R) translating

Ikeda Sensei (L) teaching, and Eddie Sensei (R) translating

Ikeda Sensei treating a pediatric patient.  We happen to get two pediatric patients during our seminar.  What a treat!   

Ikeda Sensei treating a pediatric patient.  We happen to get two pediatric patients during our seminar.  What a treat!