Editorials: Controversies in Family Medicine

Should Children with Acute Otitis Media Routinely Be Treated with Antibiotics? Yes: Routine Treatment Makes Sense for Symptomatic, Emotional, and Economic Reasons


Am Fam Physician. 2013 Oct 1;88(7):online.

  Related editorial: Should Children with Acute Otitis Media Routinely Be Treated with Antibiotics? No: Most Children Older Than Two Years Do Not Require Antibiotics

This is one in a series of pro/con editorials discussing controversial issues in family medicine.

In the literature, the role of antibiotics in the treatment of acute otitis media (AOM) is clear but disappointing. There is a significant, but only modest, benefit of antibiotics for AOM. Because of these disappointing results, many experts and clinicians have decided that, as a practical matter, it is unnecessary to prescribe antibiotics for children with AOM—at least during the first three days, with the possible exception of children younger than two years. The demonstrated benefits are an average of one less day of pain and fever, which is about evenly offset by the risk of adverse effects, mainly rash, diarrhea, and allergic reactions.13 These benefits warrant discussion with parents for shared decision making regarding treatment.

A 2009 systematic review of 11 trials found that persistence of symptoms two to four days after treatment was 25% less likely with antibiotics than with placebo or watchful waiting (relative risk = 0.75; 95% confidence interval, 0.64 to 0.88).1 A 2010 systematic review of 135 articles found that one more patient had short-term resolution for every nine treated with antibiotics compared with placebo.2 A 2011 systematic review of 11 trials found a similar likelihood of resolution of AOM symptoms with immediate antibiotic treatment.3

In this context, it is fair to say that the decision of whether to treat AOM in children is a close call. In such a situation, should a physician automatically make the decision for the parents and the child? Because we have increasingly emphasized shared decision making in family medicine, would it not be more appropriate to elicit input from the parents? Restated, is it not perfectly reasonable for parents, for both emotional and rational reasons, to consider a small but statistically significant symptomatic benefit for their child at the risk of a rash or diarrhea? Adding support to a parental decision to treat is the recent finding of an economic benefit of immediate treatment, because parents of children in a delayed treatment group missed more work days compared with parents of children in an immediate treatment group (mean of 2.1 vs. 1.2; P = .03).4 On the other hand, it is also reasonable for a parent to prefer no treatment to avoid potential adverse effects.

Thus, immediate treatment of symptomatic children with AOM is eminently reasonable in view of the available medical literature. Moreover, parental preference for antibiotic treatment should be considered and respected.

Address correspondence to Colin P. Kopes-Kerr, MD, at ckopeskerr@gmail.com. Reprints are not available from the author.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliation.


show all references

1. Vouloumanou EK, Karageorgopoulos DE, Kazantzi MS, Kapaskelis AM, Falagas ME. Antibiotics versus placebo or watchful waiting for acute otitis media: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2009;64(1):16–24....

2. Coker TR, Chan LS, Newberry SJ, et al. Diagnosis, microbial epidemiology, and antibiotic treatment of acute otitis media in children: a systematic review. JAMA. 2010;304(19):2161–2169.

3. Damoiseaux RA, Rovers MM. AOM in children. Clin Evid (Online). May 10, 2011. http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/systematic-review/0301/overview.html (login required). Accessed January 31, 2013.

4. Tähtinen PA, Laine MK, Ruuskanen O, Ruohola A. Delayed versus immediate antimicrobial treatment for acute otitis media. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2012;31(12):1227–1232.



Copyright © 2013 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

More in AFP

More in Pubmed


Jan 2022

Access the latest issue of American Family Physician

Read the Issue

Email Alerts

Don't miss a single issue. Sign up for the free AFP email table of contents.

Sign Up Now

Navigate this Article