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Why wasn’t my son treated with antibiotics for his red ear?

By Herschel Lessin, M.D.

Before entering the room, I looked at the chief complaint of my new 15 month old patient: pulling at his ear. I was also  seeing her 6 year old with an earache. Mom was concerned with her children’s frequent ear infections. They were always on antibiotics.

After my exam, I tell her that while her infant’s ear was a little red, it was not infected. Her 6 year old had an ear infection. Neither needed antibiotics.

Mom was most definitely not happy. The antibiotic seems to always help. Why weren’t they being treated this time?

The answer was that I was one of the good pediatricians who only used antibiotics when they were appropriate.

For decades, US physicians have been treating every red ear as an ear infection. There is now compelling evidence that not only is this practice wrong, but it is dangerous as well.

First of all, a mild red ear is absolutely NOT a sign of an ear infection. In order for the infection to be present, the entire structure of the eardrum must be distorted and bulging. In addition, there must be fluid behind the eardrum that restricts its movement with air pressure. The mild red ear does not meet any of these criteria and is not a sign of an infection that requires antibiotics. Most red ears are due to infants’ crying while being examined.

The indiscriminant use of antibiotics has resulted in many bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics and can cause severe, difficult to treat illnesses that may be life threatening

Current American Academy of Pediatrics Policy is to not treat ear infections at any age unless examination reveals the bulging distorted ear drum that I mentioned earlier. Definite ear infections should be treated in children less than 2 years of age.

The recommendation that has caused the most resistance from both parents and pediatricians alike, is the “Observation Option”. Older kids can be observed with aggressive pain relief. If pain cannot be controlled or symptoms last more than 2-3 days, then antibiotics can be used. This idea has met with significant resistance from both parents and pediatricians alike.

Trying to teach old dogs new tricks has always been difficult. Add to this the fact that parents want us to DO SOMETHING! It is a brave pediatrician who does not give parents what they want. Finally, it takes a lot less time to write an antibiotic prescription than to explain to an angry parent exactly why it is not needed. Not to mention the fact that many adults with simple colds get antibiotics from their own physicians.

The indiscriminant use of antibiotics for viral infections and earaches must cease since it is causing enormous problems with bacterial resistance to our strongest antibiotics.

I explained to the parent that while there is a small chance that her son will go on to develop a real ear infection requiring a second trip to the doctor, that is a small price to pay to avoid exposing our children to unnecessary antibiotics that can cause real harm.

Many of us have used a compromise called the SNAP (safety net antibiotic prescription). A time limited prescription for antibiotics is provided to the parent to only fill if they really need it. We trust our parents to do this. Studies are ongoing to see how many actually do not fill the prescription.

Dr. Lessin has been a practicing pediatrician for 30 years. He is a founding partner and served as both Medical Director and Director of Clinical Research at the Children’s Medical Group.