Prospective Data Support Delaying Antibiotics for Pediatric Respiratory Infections

Will Pass

February 19, 2021

For pediatric patients with respiratory tract infections (RTIs), immediately prescribing antibiotics may do more harm than good, based on prospective data from 436 children treated by primary care pediatricians in Spain.

In the largest trial of its kind to date, children who were immediately prescribed antibiotics showed no significant difference in symptom severity or duration from those who received a delayed prescription for antibiotics, or no prescription at all; yet those in the immediate-prescription group had a higher rate of gastrointestinal adverse events, reported lead author Gemma Mas-Dalmau, MD, of the Sant Pau Institute for Biomedical Research, Barcelona, and colleagues.

"Most RTIs are self-limiting, and antibiotics hardly alter the course of the condition, yet antibiotics are frequently prescribed for these conditions," the investigators wrote in Pediatrics. "Antibiotic prescription for RTIs in children is especially considered to be inappropriately high."

This clinical behavior is driven by several factors, according to Mas-Dalmau and colleagues, including limited diagnostics in primary care, pressure to meet parental expectations, and concern for possible complications if antibiotics are withheld or delayed.

In an accompanying editorial, Jeffrey S. Gerber, MD, PhD, and Bonnie F. Offit, MD, of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that "children in the United States receive more than one antibiotic prescription per year, driven largely by acute RTIs."

Gerber and Offit noted that some RTIs are indeed caused by bacteria, and therefore benefit from antibiotics, but it's "not always easy" to identify these cases.

"Primary care, urgent care, and emergency medicine clinicians have a hard job," they wrote.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delayed prescription of antibiotics, in which a prescription is filled upon persistence or worsening of symptoms, can balance clinical caution and antibiotic stewardship.

"An example of this approach is acute otitis media, in which delayed prescribing has been shown to safely reduce antibiotic exposure," wrote Gerber and Offit.

In a 2017 Cochrane systematic review of both adults and children with RTIs, antibiotic prescriptions, whether immediate, delayed, or not given at all, had no significant effect on most symptoms or complications. Although several randomized trials have evaluated delayed antibiotic prescriptions in children, Mas-Dalmau and colleagues described the current body of evidence as "scant."

The present study built upon this knowledge base by prospectively following 436 children treated at 39 primary care centers in Spain from 2012 to 2016. Patients were between 2 and 14 years of age and presented for rhinosinusitis, pharyngitis, acute otitis media, or acute bronchitis. Inclusion in the study required the pediatrician to have "reasonable doubts about the need to prescribe an antibiotic." Clinics with access to rapid streptococcal testing did not enroll patients with pharyngitis.

Patients were randomized in approximately equal groups to receive either immediate prescription of antibiotics, delayed prescription, or no prescription. In the delayed group, caregivers were advised to fill prescriptions if any of following three events occurred:

  • No symptom improvement after a certain amount of days, depending on presenting complaint (acute otitis media, 4 days; pharyngitis, 7 days; acute rhinosinusitis, 15 days; acute bronchitis, 20 days).

  • Temperature of at least 39° C after 24 hours, or at least 38° C but less than 39° C after 48 hours.

  • Patient feeling "much worse."

Primary outcomes were severity and duration of symptoms over 30 days, while secondary outcomes included antibiotic use over 30 days, additional unscheduled visits to primary care over 30 days, and parental satisfaction and beliefs regarding antibiotic efficacy.

In the final dataset, 148 patients received immediate antibiotic prescriptions, while 146 received delayed prescriptions, and 142 received no prescription. Rate of antibiotic use was highest in the immediate prescription group, at 96%, versus 25.3% in the delayed group and 12% among those who received no prescription upon first presentation (P < .001).

Although the mean duration of severe symptoms was longest in the delayed-prescription group, at 12.4 days, versus 10.9 days in the no-prescription group and 10.1 days in the immediate-prescription group, these differences were not statistically significant (P = .539). Median score for greatest severity of any symptom was also similar across groups. Secondary outcomes echoed this pattern, in which reconsultation rates and caregiver satisfaction were statistically similar regardless of treatment type.

In contrast, patients who received immediate antibiotic prescriptions had a significantly higher rate of gastrointestinal adverse events (8.8%) than those who received a delayed prescription (3.4%) or no prescription (2.8%; P = .037).

"Delayed antibiotic prescription is an efficacious and safe strategy for reducing inappropriate antibiotic treatment of uncomplicated RTIs in children when the doctor has reasonable doubts regarding the indication," the investigators concluded. "[It] is therefore a useful tool for addressing the public health issue of bacterial resistance. However, no antibiotic prescription remains the recommended strategy when it is clear that antibiotics are not indicated, like in most cases of acute bronchitis."

"These data are reassuring," wrote Gerber and Offit; however, they went on to suggest that the data "might not substantially move the needle."

"With rare exceptions, children with acute pharyngitis should first receive a group A streptococcal test," they wrote. "If results are positive, all patients should get antibiotics; if results are negative, no one gets them. Acute bronchitis (whatever that is in children) is viral. Acute sinusitis with persistent symptoms (the most commonly diagnosed variety) already has a delayed option, and the current study ... was not powered for this outcome. We are left with acute otitis media, which dominated enrollment but already has an evidence-based guideline."

Still, Gerber and Offit suggested that the findings should further encourage pediatricians to prescribe antibiotics judiciously, and when elected, to choose the shortest duration and narrowest spectrum possible.

Dr Rana El Feghaly

In a joint comment, Rana El Feghaly, MD, MSCI, director of outpatient antibiotic stewardship at Children's Mercy, Kansas City, and her colleague, Mary Anne Jackson, MD, noted that the findings are "in accordance" with the 2017 Cochrane review.

Feghaly and Jackson said that these new data provide greater support for conservative use of antibiotics, which is badly needed, considering approximately 50% of outpatient prescriptions are unnecessary or inappropriate.

Delayed antibiotic prescription is part of a multifaceted approach to the issue, they said, joining "communication skills training, antibiotic justification documentation, audit and feedback reporting with peer comparison, diagnostic stewardship, [and] the use of clinician education on practice-based guidelines."

"Leveraging delayed antibiotic prescription may be an excellent way to combat antibiotic overuse in the outpatient setting, while avoiding provider and parental fear of the 'no antibiotic' approach," Feghaly and Jackson said.

Karlyn Kinsella, MD, of Pediatric Associates of Cheshire, Conn., suggested that clinicians discuss these findings with parents who request antibiotics for "otitis, pharyngitis, bronchitis, or sinusitis."

"We can cite this study that antibiotics have no effect on symptom duration or severity for these illnesses," Kinsella said. "Of course, our clinical opinion in each case takes precedent."

According to Kinsella, conversations with parents also need to cover reasonable expectations, as the study did, with clear time frames for each condition in which children should start to get better.

"I think this is really key in our anticipatory guidance so that patients know what to expect," she said.

The study was funded by Instituto de Salud Carlos III, the European Union, and the Spanish Ministry of Health, Social Services, and Equality. The investigators and interviewees reported no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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