Chewing gum as medicine? It might just help prevent ear infections

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: February 16th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Chew your gum, dear. It’s good for you. Certainly most of our mothers never uttered such a phrase, but it may become more commonly heard in the future. Especially for those who suffer from the common childhood affliction of middle ear aches.

New research from Finland suggests that chewing gum with the sweetener xylitol can lower the risk of ear infection. In fact, the researchers found that children in Finnish day care centers reduced their risk of infection by as much as 25 percent by consuming xylitol on a regular basis.

Scientists from the Cochrane Collaboration analyzed four studies, all conducted in Finland between 1998 and 2007. In three of the studies, healthy children were given xylitol in gum, lozenges or syrup twice a day. They found a reduction in the number of ear infections, with gum giving the best results.

For the fourth study, scientists examined the effects of xylitol on children who already had respiratory infections and were at risk for developing ear infections. The scientists found the xylitol had no effect on the children who were already sick.

What is xylitol? It’s a naturally occurring sugar that is frequently used in gums and mints because it has fewer calories. It has long been touted for its ability to ward off tooth decay.

Middle ear infections are the most common infections found in children and prompt more than 16 million doctor visits per year.

But before you run out and buy a case of gum, be forewarned: All of the gums and lozenges used in the Finnish trials were donated by the xylitol industry, although the researchers claim there was no conflict of interest. Researchers say more extensive research must be done in order to draw more conclusive results.

But the occasional piece of gum is still pretty fun to chew.