Do young children really need antibiotics every time they have an ear infection? That’s the question researchers try to answer in a study on acute childhood ear infections and antibiotic use, published in the November 17, 2010, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their findings? Using antibiotics to treat newly diagnosed acute ear infections among young children is modestly more effective than no treatment—but does come with an increased risk of side effects, including rash and diarrhea.
In reaching these conclusions, researchers looked at published health data from the past decade, noting that out of 100 otherwise healthy children with acute ear infections, about 80 would be expected to get better within about three days without antibiotics. If all were treated with antibiotics immediately at diagnosis, an additional 12 would improve, but three to 10 children would develop a rash and five to 10 would develop diarrhea.
The takeaway message for parents? "Prescribing antibiotics early may help cure ear infections a little bit faster, but also raises the risk that children will suffer antibiotic-related side effects such as a rash or diarrhea ... Our findings reinforce the existing knowledge that the best antibiotic treatment for common childhood ear infections may be no antibiotic treatment at all," says study lead author Dr. Tumaini R. Coker, a pediatrician at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA and a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization involved with the study.
Suspect your baby has an ear infection? Whether or not antibiotics are prescribed, it's important to have him checked by a healthcare provider. Symptoms of ear infection in infants include irritability and trouble sleeping (due to the different pressure put on ears when they're lying down). They may cry when trying to feed, as sucking and swallowing put tension on a sore ear. Fever may or may not be present at any age, but can be as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit. An older infant may scratch or bat at his ears. Toddlers and older children can usually begin to talk about ear pain, pressure, or fullness.