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BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have a child with an ear infection. It tells you about antibiotics, a treatment used for ear infections. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Do they work?

Antibiotics may help your child recover from an ear infection faster. But your child may get better anyway without antibiotics. Also, these medicines don't clear up all ear infections. And they can cause side effects.

What are they?

Antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria. They are divided into different types, depending on how they work in your body. Examples of antibiotics used to treat ear infections (and their brand names) include:

All these drugs come in doses suitable for children. They're usually prescribed as a liquid that your child can swallow. The antibiotic usually recommended for ear infections is called amoxicillin. It belongs to a group of antibiotics called penicillins.

Guidelines for doctors say they should not prescribe antibiotics for ear infections, unless they think a child really needs them. [23] This is because antibiotics may not work as well in the future if they are used too much. This is called antibiotic resistance. Your doctor may decide to prescribe antibiotics if: [23]

  • Your child has an infection in both ears and is aged under 2

  • Your child has discharge coming from the infected ear

  • Your child seems very unwell or is at risk of getting serious complications.

If your GP prescribes antibiotics, your child will usually need to take them for five days to 10 days.

How can they help?

Antibiotics can help children with ear infections get better faster. [24] [25] [26] They can also reduce how many painkillers your child needs to take. But many children get better without antibiotics.

In the most recent summary of the research, children who took antibiotics were less likely to have pain two to seven days after seeing a doctor: [26]

  • Of the children taking antibiotics, 16 in 100 still had pain

  • Of the children taking pretend ( placebo) tablets, 22 in 100 still had pain.

Here's what the research tells us about taking antibiotics.

  • Most antibiotics work about the same. But a type called macrolides may work less well than others. (Macrolide antibiotics include erythromycin, clarithromycin, and azithromycin.) [27]

  • Taking antibiotics for 10 days works slightly better than taking them for five days. [28]

  • Sometimes doctors suggest waiting before starting antibiotics, to see if the infection goes away on its own. If that happens, your child won't need antibiotics and will avoid having side effects. Research shows that if you give your child antibiotics straight away rather than waiting a few days, your child is a little more likely to feel better, sooner. But there isn't much difference to other symptoms like pain. [29] Children who take antibiotics straight away are more likely to have diarrhoea than those who wait.

Last Updated: October 08, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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