You might be wondering what this means for you and your child.
The purpose of the new guidelines was to consider the substantial amount of research done since 2004, when the last guidelines were published, in order to assist primary care clinicians in the diagnosis and initial treatment of acute ear infections according to scientific evidence.
Evidence-based medical practice is important because we want to provide care to your child that is necessary, effective, and beneficial. Accurately diagnosing an ear infection is the first step in this process. The first part of the new guidelines addresses the importance of making the correct diagnosis of acute otitis media, and determining if it is a severe or not severe infection. The guidelines go on to address treatment and prevention.
DIAGNOSING ACUTE OTITIS MEDIA AND DETERMINING IF IT IS SEVERE
Acute otitis media is diagnosed when there is fluid in the middle ear (fluid behind the ear drum, a middle ear effusion) PLUS one of the following circumstances:
1. There is moderate to severe bulging of the ear drum (tympanic membrane), OR new ear drainage that is not caused by swimmer's ear (otitis externa).
2. There is mild bulging of the ear drum PLUS severe ear drum redness or recent onset of ear pain (or signs of ear pain such as holding/tugging/rubbing the ear in a child who cannot talk).
The guidelines further define acute otitis media as SEVERE if there are severe signs or symptoms such as moderate to severe pain, over 48 hours of pain, or fever of equal to or greater than 102.2 degrees.
NONSEVERE acute otitis media is diagnosed when the pain is mild, less than 48 hours, and fever is less than 102.2 degrees.
The recommended first step in management of acute otitis media is assessment and treatment of pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are the first choice because they are effective, best tolerated, easiest to give, and most available of all the options. Managing pain is important even when antibiotics are used to treat acute otitis media, because pain may continue for 48 to 72 hours after starting an antibiotic.
DECIDING TO USE ANTIBIOTICS
The next step in managing acute otitis media is deciding if antibiotics will be necessary. That's right, not all children with ear infections need antibiotics! The guidelines state that children who are 24 months of age and older, who have NONSEVERE acute otitis media in either one or both ears, may be safely and effectively treated with initial observation and pain management. The decision to hold off on antibiotic treatment is made jointly between the pediatrician and parent. A plan is put in place to ensure follow up or treatment if symptoms get worse or are not improving in 48 to 72 hours.
In general the guidelines recommend antibiotic treatment for SEVERE acute otitis media at any age, or for children under 24 months of age with NONSEVERE acute otitis media that is BILATERAL (on both sides).
DECIDING WHICH ANTIBIOTIC TO USE
Amoxicillin is the first choice if the decision has been made to treat with an antibiotic AND the child has not had amoxicillin in the last 30 days, is not allergic to penicillin, and does not have signs of bacteria that is resistant to amoxicillin (such as repeated poor response to amoxicillin or purulent conjunctivitis--"pink eye" with lots of thick, crusted, colored drainage).
Raising the amoxicillin dose from the traditional 40 milligrams of amoxicillin per kilogram of the child's weight per day to 80-90 mg per kilogram per day will overcome most common bacterial resistance to amoxicillin seen in acute ear infections.
If amoxicillin has been used in the last 30 days, the child is allergic to penicillin, or the bacteria is believed to be resistant to amoxicillin, then amoxicillin-clavulanate (Augmentin) or a cephalosporin (such as cefdinir, cefuroxime, cefpodoxime, cefixime, or ceftriaxone) are the next choices.
Of note, recently (as of 4/14/2013) there have been back-orders on certain cephalosporins, or a delay in pharmacies being able to supply prescribed liquid cephalosporins to our patients. Effectiveness, availability, taste, and cost affect the choice of the prescribed antibiotic.
If symptoms worsen or do not respond to initial antibiotic treatment in 48 to 72 hours, then the child may need to be reevaluated. Even with effective antibiotic treatment pain may worsen for the first 24 hours or not improve for 48-72 hours. Most of the time pain will be treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
All children are recommended to receive the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine when they are eligible (the routine vaccination schedule for pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 12-15 months). Annual flu vaccine is recommended for all eligible children (starting at age six months). Six months of breastfeeding is encouraged. Avoidance of tobacco smoke exposure is important. Avoiding giving a bottle while the child lays flat on her back may help prevent ear infections. Reducing or eliminating pacifier use after the age of six months may also help. Decreasing the frequency of viral upper respiratory infections may help reduce ear infections--the only identified way to do this is to reduce exposure to group day care.
A few studies have show xylitol (which is "birch sugar") is effective in reducing ear infection frequency by 25 percent for children in group day care. The best way to give it is in chewing gum or lozenge form, 3-5 times a day, every day throughout the cold and flu season. Gum and lozenges are not appropriate to use in young children because they are a choking hazard. Xylitol does not help treat an active ear infection and does not work if used only occasionally. Of note, xylitol is not really considered a practical solution for the prevention of ear infections at this time due to the limitations in availability for younger children and the difficulties in regular and consistent administration.
Preventative antibiotics (such as a daily small dose of an antibiotic) should NOT be used because they are likely to be more harmful than helpful.
Ear tubes may be an option for recurrent acute otitis media (three episodes in six months, or four episodes in one year with one episode in the preceding six months), however the benefits versus the risks of the procedure must be considered.
The new guidelines point out that many families turn to complementary or alternative medicine for the treatment and prevention of ear infections. However, in the comprehensive review of the available research-based evidence, no good studies of the effectiveness of such treatments have been published. The guidelines made recommendations about the need for research in this area, and cautioned about the potential costs of treatments that have not been proven to be effective.
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