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Ear Infections: To Treat Or Not To Treat?

Ear infections used to be a devastating problem. In 1932, acute otitis media (AOM) and its suppurative complications accounted for 27 percent of all pediatric admissions to Bellevue Hospital. Since the introduction of antibiotics, it has become a much less serious problem. For decades it was taken for granted that all children with AOM should be given antibiotics, not only to treat the disease itself but to prevent complications like mastoiditis and meningitis.

In the 1980s, that consensus began to change. We realized that as many as 80 percent of uncomplicated ear infections resolve without treatment in three days. Many infections are caused by viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics cause side effects. A new strategy of watchful waiting was developed.

Current Medical Guidelines

In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) collaborated to issue evidence-based guidelines based on a review of the published evidence. Something was lost in the transmission: The guidelines have been over-simplified and misrepresented, so it’s useful to look at what they actually said. There were six parts:

1. Criteria were specified for accurate diagnosis.

  • History of acute onset of signs and symptoms
  • Presence of middle ear effusion (ear drum bulging, lack of mobility, air-fluid level)
  • Signs and symptoms of middle ear inflammation: Either red ear drum or ear pain interfering with normal activity or sleep

They stressed that AOM must be distinguished from otitis media with effusion (OME). OME is more common, occurs with the common cold, can be a precursor or a consequence of AOM, and is not an indication for antibiotic treatment. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

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