Children Often Get Antibiotics for Pink Eye, Even Though It Doesn’t Work: Study

Most cases of pink eye resolve naturally without the need for antibiotic drugs, which medical experts caution are ineffective against viral conditions.

Amid continuing concerns about the long-term impact of antibiotic overuse, which contributes to the rise of “super bug” infections that are resistant to available treatments, researchers warn that children and teens continue to receive antibiotic eye drops for conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, even though drugs do not effectively treat the condition.

In a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology on June 27, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Harvard, led by Dr. Daniel J. Shapiro, found that roughly two-thirds of kids and teens treated for pink eye were given antibiotics to treat the condition.

Pink eye is a highly contagious inflammation of the eye, which affects one out of every eight U.S. children and teens each year. The condition causes the eye to become red, swollen, and itchy, and can also cause a sticky discharge.

While doctors have historically prescribed antibiotic drops to treat pink eye, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends against this protocol, since conjunctivitis is usually a viral infection, not bacterial, and cannot be effectively treated with antibiotics.

Research suggests that treating pink eye with a cold, wet towel and artificial tears is sufficient to alleviate symptoms and let the virus resolve naturally. Furthermore, even mild bacterial eye infections typically clear up on their own without the need for medications.

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Antibiotics Overused for Pink Eye

In their latest study, Dr. Shapiro and his team analyzed the frequency of antibiotic prescriptions for pink eye among children and teens. They examined insurance claims data from commercially insured young patients diagnosed with acute infectious conjunctivitis across the United States in 2021.

According to the data, 45,000 children received treatment for pink eye at doctor’s offices, eye clinics, or emergency rooms that year, with 69% being prescribed antibiotic drops or ointments for their condition.

The study reveals that children and teens treated in doctor’s offices were more likely to receive antibiotics for pink eye (72%) compared to those seen in emergency rooms (57%) or at eye clinics (34%). Eye clinics tend to prescribe fewer antibiotics, because they have specialized diagnostic tools to identify the underlying cause of pink eye, leading to more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans.

Additionally, the researchers found that fewer than 4% of all patients made return visits for pink eye, suggesting that regardless of whether antibiotics were used, most cases did not worsen or lead to complications.

The data also suggests that antibiotics might not significantly improve outcomes, as there was no increased rate of return visits among those who did not receive them initially. Based on these findings, Dr. Shapiro’s team advocates for updated guidelines to reduce the frequency of antibiotic prescriptions for pink eye among children and teens.

Antibiotics and the Spread of Superbugs

There has been much concern over antibiotic prescribing habits in recent years, as research indicates inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions increase the risk of global superbugs, which are resistant to available antibiotics, making them very difficult to treat and potentially deadly.

According to research published in the journal of Health Affairs in 2020, half of all antibiotic prescriptions are issued for conditions that are not genuine bacterial infections treatable by antibiotics.

Moreover, the overuse of antibiotics in children not only increases the likelihood of side effects, such as stomach problems and yeast infections, it has also been found to increase healthcare costs. Inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions for children can result in as much as $97 in unnecessary costs per patient, accumulating to tens of millions of dollars annually for the various conditions treated.

Among adults, overusing antibiotics is linked to an increased risk of early death and organ dysfunction, according to data published by researchers from the University of Michigan earlier this year.

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