Antibiotics for Ear Infections on Decline

The proportion of children who were given an antibiotic specifically to treat otitis media, a commonly diagnosed ear condition, declined from 14.4 percent in 1996 to 11.5 percent in 2001, according to new data from HHS’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The data also showed declines in both the percentage of children reported to have otitis media and the percentage of children whose parents sought treatment for the condition.

The data, from AHRQ’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), suggest that campaigns launched in the mid-1990s to reduce the overuse of antibiotics and prevent antibiotic-resistant infection may have been effective. The campaigns, by HHS’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, alerted parents and clinicians to the potential dangers of overuse of antibiotics and promoted appropriate use of these medications.

The majority of antibiotics prescribed for children in the United States are for respiratory tract infections; treatment for otitis media accounts for about one-third of all antibiotics purchased for children. Respiratory tract infections may be caused either by bacteria that can be treated effectively with antibiotics or by a virus for which antibiotics will not help.

“Although antibiotics can help some children with respiratory tract infections, it can be difficult to determine who will benefit from the drugs,” said Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D., director of AHRQ. “These MEPS findings suggest that educational campaigns are working and that parents now are more selective about when they seek medical treatment and antibiotics for their children.”

The data also show that between 1996 and 2001, the percentage of children in the United States age 14 and under who used an antibiotic for any reason during a given year declined from 39 percent to 29 percent. In addition, the average number of antibiotic prescriptions used by all children age 14 and under during this period declined from 0.9 per child to 0.5 per child.

MEPS researchers also looked at trends in antibiotic use between 1996 and 2001 for children of different ages, races/ethnicities, gender, household income, insurance status, health status, and geographic location. They found that over that period of time, each subgroup of children showed a decline both in the percentage with antibiotic use and the average number of prescriptions for antibiotics.

MEPS collects information each year from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households about health care use, expenses, access, health status, and satisfaction with care. MEPS is a unique government survey because of the degree of detail in its data, as well as its ability to link data on health services spending and health insurance to demographic, employment, economic, health status, and other characteristics of individuals and families.

Details are in Research Findings 23: Trends in Children’s Antibiotic Use: 1996 to 2001, found on the MEPS Web site at

For more information, please contact AHRQ Public Affairs: (301) 427-1855 or (301) 427-1857


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.

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