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Treating Ear Infections

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

It has been very busy in my office with plenty of ear infections going around.  Once you have taken your child to the pediatrician and they have indeed been diagnosed with an ear infection (otitis), what’s next?

Like many things in medicine there is not one right answer to that question and there continues to be a debate on the treatment of ear infections.  The many articles that have been published in past years have looked at the prevalence of certain bacteria in causing ear infections, the role of viruses as a cause of ear infections and even when and if to treat an ear infection. The articles did not seem to have a clear consensus.  You may have noticed that too if you have seen different doctors who have different opinions about otitis treatment.

Now, two recent articles in the New England Journal of Medicine (Jan. 2011) once again looked at antibiotic use for the treatment of ear infections.  In two double blind, placebo controlled, randomized trials (the gold standard for studies) researchers defined otitis as the “acute onset and presence of middle-ear effusion (fluid), bulging tympanic membrane (ear drum), erythema (redness) and pain. The studies were done in Europe and the United States, and looked at whether children between 6 months and 35 months of age improved more quickly if they received an antibiotic rather than a placebo (no antibiotic).

This debate had been ongoing, and both of these studies showed that the children who received antibiotics had symptom resolution more quickly than those who were given placebo.  The study also showed that those who received antibiotics were more likely to develop diarrhea. (bummer, hate those side effects!)

Given these recent studies I think that the consensus would be that young children with documented ear infections should receive a course of antibiotics. That would typically mean children 2 and under.

But, these studies did not look at the practice of what is called “watchful waiting” which has been advocated for older children. When a child over the age of two complains of ear pain, and is then examined and found to have an ear infection it may not always be necessary to prescribe an antibiotic.

If the child is old enough to easily evaluate and does not appear ill it may be appropriate to be conservative about antibiotic use, and to provide pain relief with topical ear drops and oral pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In many cases in an older child, the pain and infection will resolve over several days and an antibiotic will not be necessary. I often write a prescription for a parent to use if their child seems to become more uncomfortable, or the pain persists. In most cases these prescriptions have not been used.

Doctors should take into account the history of previous ear infections, parental concerns as well as concerns about excessive use of antibiotics. “Watchful waiting” requires educating parents and having a discussion as to the pros and cons of antibiotic use. Each case may be a little different.

Ear infections are still one of the most common reasons a child receives an antibiotic. These two articles now help clear up the debate about antibiotic use in younger children. “Watchful waiting” may still be appropriate for an older child with a simple ear infection.

That’s your daily dose for today.  We’ll chat again tomorrow.

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