Ear infections cause significant and sometimes serious ear pain, overnight awakening, missed school, missed work, and lots of parental heartache. For some children, infections in the ear can be a chronic problem and lead to repeated clinic visits, multiple courses of antibiotics, and rarely a need for tube placement by surgery. For most children, ear infections occur more sporadically, just bad luck after a cold. Fortunately the majority of children recover from ear infections without any intervention. But about 20-30% of the time, they need help fighting the infection.
Ear infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria when excess fluid gets trapped in the middle portion of the ear, behind the eardrum. When that space fills with mucus or pus it is put under pressure and it gets inflamed causing pain. Symptoms of ear infections include pain, fever, difficulty hearing, difficultly sleeping, crankiness, or tugging and pulling at the ear. This typically happens at the time or soon after a cold—therefore the fluid in the ear can either be filled with a virus or bacteria.
The most important medicine you give your child when you first suspect an ear infection is one for pain.
Antibiotics only help if bacteria is the cause. When a true infection is present causing pain and fever, antibiotics are never the wrong choice. Often you’ll need a clinician’s help in diagnosing a true ear infection.
Three’s been a lot of work (and research) over the last 15 years to reduce unnecessary antibiotics prescribed for ear infections. There has been great progress. Less children see the doctor when they have an ear infection (only 634/1000 in 2005 versus 950/1000 back in the 1990’s) and they’re prescribed antibiotics less frequently. Recent data finds that less than half of children with ear infections receive antibiotics (only 434 of every 1000 children with ear infections). However, the far majority who go in to see a doctor do still receive a prescription for antibiotic (76%).
The American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP) just released new guidelines to help physicians do a better job treating ear infections. Sometimes children really benefit from using antibiotics and new research has led to an update on the 2004 previously published recommendations. Over-use of antibiotics can lead to more resistant and aggressive bacteria so we want to use them at the right time. These recommendations may help improve care for children.