Do Antibiotics Really Work for Ear Infections?

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A recent study suggests that giving kids antibiotics has little effect on speeding the recovery of some types of ear infections, while it does raise the risk of some side effects.

The study found that 80% of otherwise healthy children would recover from an acute ear infection within a few days if given medication only to relieve pain or fevers. Given antibiotics instead, 92% would be better in the same period, said Dr. Tumaini Coker, the study's lead author.

"But we would also expect three to 10 kids to develop rash and five to 10 to develop diarrhea," said Coker, a pediatrician at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital.

"Clinicians and parents need to know the benefits and side effects on how to manage their child's ear infection," Coker said.

The study was designed to review existing research on the topic for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is in the process of revising its guidelines for treating uncomplicated acute otitis media — ear infections that cause pain and fever.

Once the review is complete, new recommendations will be incorporated into the guidelines. For example, since 2004 "observation" — avoiding antibiotics — is an option for treating ear infections in otherwise healthy children between the ages of 2 and 12. Research also shows that older types of amoxicillin as well as newer, more expensive versions work equally well, and that the newer ones tend to have more side effects since they are more complex drugs. In addition, using antibiotics only when necessary may allow continued use of antibiotics for future generations, because overuse of the drugs is contributing to antibiotic resistance, the doctors said.

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