Antibiotics for children’s ear infections (otitis media) was once a no-brainer. Not anymore, thanks to the widespread problem of drug resistance and new doubts about the usefulness of antibiotics for ear infections. While antibiotics are still the mainstay of treatment in this country, some parents and doctors are starting to think twice about the practice
While antibiotics are often life-saving wonder drugs, the arguments against using them reflexively are powerful. We need to lighten up on our antibiotic habit, or we risk the loss of cures for potentially life-threatening infections such as pneumonia.
What Exactly Are Ear Infections?
What we commonly call ear infections are actually two forms of otitis media, which means inflammation of the middle ear. Acute otitis media (AOM) is an infection that can cause that notorious middle-of-the-night ear pain. But young children may have an “ear infection” that is not really an infection. Otitis media with effusion (OME) is sometimes called “glue ear.” It is an accumulation of a sticky fluid in the middle ear. OME rarely causes symptoms, but recurring OME can damage the ears.
Treatment for Ear Infections
If your child is diagnosed with an ear infection, find out what kind it is. The government and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend a “watch and wait” approach for treating OME, but no antibiotics unless the fluid persists over time and evidence of hearing loss is found. Studies show that two-thirds of OME cases clear up on their own within three months, and 85 percent within six months.
For AOM, antibiotics may be appropriate in some cases. But if you have reservations about it, rest assured that AOM is rarely a medical emergency that requires urgent antibiotic treatment. Children who only have AOM occasionally may be treated at home with children’s strength pain relievers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but not aspirin) and a warm compress over the affected ear. Keeping the child upright or propped up in bed is also helpful.
You probably do not need to rush to the emergency room, but do make an appointment to have your child’s ears examined. If home remedies and other non-drug measures do not resolve the infection, antibiotics may be necessary. Many doctors are now prescribing a lower dose for a shorter duration, and there is some early evidence that giving one injection of antibiotics may be just as effective as a course of oral treatment.