Are Antibiotics Always Necessary?

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Treating ear infections is a balancing act between giving too many antibiotics and avoiding the serious consequences of not treating kids with them. As our society has used more and more antibiotics, bacteria have mutated and developed protection against the drugs.

This has resulted in the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria -- and the resulting ear infections that are harder to treat. Doctors and parents can help prevent superbugs from developing by avoiding the unnecessary use of antibiotics. With that in mind, pediatricians are revising the way they treat ear infections. Many are now holding off on giving antibiotics during two or three days of observation (while kids are given pain-relief medicine for their discomfort). If a child doesn't get better in that period, then the physician prescribes antibiotics.

This approach is entirely reasonable for a child older than 2 who has no fever and does not seem especially ill, because viruses cause some ear infections, and up to half of ear infections caused by bacteria will improve without antibiotics.

Of course, getting to the doctor's can be difficult for parents, and many don't want to make a return trip two days later, especially if they have to take time off from work. The solution may be giving parents a "safety net" prescription. In a study in the September 2003 Pediatrics, parents were given ear drops or medicine for their child's pain and an antibiotic prescription but were instructed not to fill it unless symptoms got worse or didn't resolve after 48 hours. Seventy-eight percent of the parents reported that they didn't need to use the antibiotics.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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