My youngest daughter was plagued by ear infections as a toddler. An otherwise healthy child, she came down with a new ear infection almost as soon as she got over the last one. So I know first-hand how hard it is to watch helplessly as your child struggles to eat, play and sleep while they are constantly nagged by ear pain. And I also know how tempting it is to ask a doctor for antibiotics if there's any chance that the drugs will ease your child's pain. But with new guidelines for treating and diagnosing ear infections, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging doctors to use more caution before doling out antibiotics to treat this condition.

Every year, millions of children are diagnosed with ear infections and sent home from the doctor's office with antibiotics to treat the condition. It's the most common reason that many children get antibiotics. But health experts say that about 70 percent of children will get better on their own within two or three days, even without antibiotics. And roughly 80 percent of kids get better on their own within a week. So many health care professionals have questioned the need to expose kids to the side effects of antibiotics — such as upset stomach, diarrhea, and rashes — when they are likely to feel better on their own in just a few days. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics might contribute to the development of superbugs that become immune to antibiotic drugs and are thus harder to cure.

In response to these issues, the AAP released its new guideline, The Diagnosis and Management of Acute Otitis Media, online today in the journal Pediatrics. It specifically addresses ear infections in children ages 6 months through 12 years, requiring more stringent criteria for the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Pediatricians are urged to use more caution in both diagnosing ear infections and in using antibiotics to treat them. Instead, the AAP recommends using over-the-counter pain relievers or observation alone to treat ear infections whenever possible, based on the child’s age and severity of symptoms.

So when should doctors dole out antibiotics? The new guideline still recommends the drugs in more complicated ear infection diagnoses, such as in children aged 6 months to 2 years who have infections in both ears or any child who is experiencing severe pain or a high fever along with other ear infection symptoms. The AAP also recommends antibiotics for any child who has a ruptured eardrum due to an ear infection.  

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