Effective use of antibiotics to treat pediatric upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) rests on 3 basic principles: accurate diagnosis, consideration of risks vs benefits, and recognizing when antibiotics may be contraindicated, according to a clinical report by the Committee on Infectious Diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Of the nearly 50 million pediatric antibiotic prescriptions written annually, as many as 10 million of those "are directed toward respiratory conditions for which they are unlikely to provide benefit," lead author Adam L. Hersh, MD, PhD, and fellow committee members write in an article published in the December issue of Pediatrics. Often this occurs because it is hard to distinguish bacterial infections, which respond to antibiotics, from viral infections, which do not.
The report emphasizes "the importance of using stringent and validated clinical criteria when diagnosing acute otitis media (AOM), acute bacterial sinusitis, and pharyngitis caused by group A Streptococcus(GAS), as established through clinical guidelines," the authors write.
The first principle of judicious antibiotic prescribing is to determine the presence of a bacterial infection. For example, with AOM, this requires an otoscopic examination to observe characteristic inflammatory changes in the tympanic membrane plus bulging of the membrane or new-onset otorrhea not attributable to otitis externa, or mild bulging of the tympanic membrane accompanied by intense erythema or pain of recent onset. Acute bacterial sinusitis is diagnosed from persistent, worsening, or severe symptoms. Pharyngitis resulting from GAS can be diagnosed by taking a throat culture to identify the organism.
Following these diagnostic guidelines can help clinicians rule out the common cold, nonspecific URI, and bronchitis, which are viral in origin and will not respond to antibiotics, the authors write.
The second principle is to weigh the benefits against the harms of antibiotics. In the case of AOM, the evidence suggests that although at least 50% of patients may get well without antibiotics, antibiotics hasten recovery and are especially helpful for patients who are younger or have bilateral or severe disease. The evidence for using antibiotics to treat acute bacterial sinusitis is limited and mixed, and the role of the drugs in preventing complications such as orbital cellulitis or intracranial abscess also is unproven. Nevertheless, the AAP recommends antibiotics for children with clinical features of acute bacterial sinusitis, especially when the symptoms are worsening or severe. As for GAS pharyngitis, good evidence suggests that antibiotics can shorten symptom duration, although their effect on limiting fever is less clear, and they may reduce horizontal transmission. Antibiotics also may prevent suppurative complications of GAS pharyngitis such as peritonsillar abscess.
The harms of antibiotics can potentially outweigh these benefits, the authors warn. Most of the clinical trials reviewed have used amoxicillin or amoxicillin-clavulanate, which have been associated with adverse events ranging from mild (eg, diarrhea and rash), to severe (eg, Stevens-Johnson syndrome), to life-threatening cardiac and anaphylactic reactions. What is more, a growing body of evidence suggests that antibiotic use early in life may upset the normal microbial balance in the intestine and other organs, possibly setting the child up for lifelong health problems, including inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, eczema, and asthma. "Application of stringent diagnostic criteria and use of therapy only when the diagnosis and potential benefits are well established is essential to minimizing the impact of antibiotic overuse on resistance in individuals and within communities," the authors write.
Principle 3 is implementation of judicious prescribing strategies, including selection of the antibiotic most likely to eliminate the infecting organism, using an appropriate dose, and treating for the shortest duration possible. The committee suggests that physicians consider a "wait-and-see" approach before prescribing antibiotics, especially for older patients with mild to moderate AOM or sinusitis. They also recommend an assessment of the child's overall antibiotic exposure.
These principles "can be used to amplify messages from recent clinical guidelines for local guideline development and for patient communication; they are broadly applicable to antibiotic prescribing in general," the authors conclude.
The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
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Comments: I am a firm believer in reducing antibiotic use in children, and it pains me to see most prescriptions by private pediatricians in India featuring antibiotics almost by default. I think that over the next few decades, we will reduce the use of antibiotics since the long term problems related to their overuse will become even more evident.