Ear Infections: Antibiotics Alleviate Ear Infections in Children, Studies Show

January 13, 2011 Updated: January 13, 2011

Antibiotics can effectively treat acute ear infections in young children, two studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found.

The studies—one by a team from the Turku University Hospital, the University of Turku, and the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, and another by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh—both found that antimicrobial treatment was better than a placebo in alleviating the length and severity of symptoms from acute otitis media, more commonly known as ear infections, in children between 6 months and 2 or 3 years old.

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jerome Klein, with the Boston University School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, said that the evidence was conclusive that antibiotics could help young children with ear infections.

“Is acute otitis media a treatable disease? The investigators in Pittsburgh and Turku have provided the best data yet to answer the question, and the answer is yes; more young children with a certain diagnosis of acute otitis media recover more quickly when they are treated with an appropriate antimicrobial agent,” Klein opined.

The Finnish study found that 81 percent of children tested that received antibiotics had their infections successfully treated, while only 55 percent of children who were given placebo had the same result.

In the Pittsburgh study, 80 percent of those given antibiotics had their ear infection symptoms alleviated by the seventh day, compared to 74 percent of children who were given placebos.

Clinical failure for the placebo after 4 or 5 days was 23 percent for the placebo, while only 4 percent for the antibiotics, HealthDay noted, citing the Pittsburgh study.

However, scientists warned that antibiotics have side effects and should be prescribed conservatively.

Almost half (48 percent) of children who took antibiotics in the Finnish study suffered from diarrhea or loose stools, about double the rate of the infants who took placebo.

“Antibiotics should be given only when the findings indicate a certain diagnosis of acute ear infection,” a press release for the Turku University Hospital study said.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), acute otitis media (AOM) symptoms include eardrum redness, pain, the presence of pus, and fever. It can be either caused by bacteria or a virus, and is best prevented by avoiding exposure to air pollution and secondhand smoke, as well as breastfeeding a child up until he/she is one year old, and bottle feeding babies in the upright position.