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Earache

Susan R. Johnson MD, FAAP, 6/25/2000

Last week my son flew to Southern California to visit my parents for 8 days. When I talked with him the next day I noticed he had come down with a cold. My father then called me a few nights later to tell me that my son was crying and complaining that his ear hurt. He had no other symptoms except for a stuffy nose. In the past, my son has had fluid in his ear, but he had never complained that his ear actually hurt. My father asked me if he should give him some Tylenol or something else to treat the ear. My father had looked in his ear and thought the pain was coming from the inner ear and not the outer ear canal.

I then swallowed a few times and replied, "No, Dad. I don't want you to give him any Tylenol or even antibiotics. This may sound strange to you, but I would like you to go down to the grocery store and buy an onion (white or yellow, but not red). I then would like you to cut the onion in half and put half of the onion in the oven for 5-10 minutes at 200 -250 degrees just to warm it but not to dry it out. I then want my son to hold the onion over his ear for 10-15 minutes." I heard a contemplative silence at the other end of the phone line. I then explained that I didn't know how the onion worked but I thought there must be some aromatic chemical that is given off that anesthesizes the ear drum. I told him that I had heard in my medical course in Switzerland that onions were routinely used to stop ear pain, and I personally knew two friends that had diced an onion and made an onion bag with a cheese cloth and placed it over their children's ears to relieve ear pain. He then ask me to repeat my instructions and went off to the grocery store.

I called home the next morning and discovered that the earache had resolved. My son had held the onion over his ear for 10 minutes the night before and the pain had stopped. He then slept peacefully until morning and awoke without any ear pain. Was it the onion that had stopped the ear pain or was it a placebo effect or a coincidence and the ear pain just stopped at the same time the onion was applied? These were the questions I left my family to wrestle with that morning as I cheerfully talked to my son and then hung up the phone.

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