Context: Of children with sore throat, 15% to 36% have pharyngitis caused by group A beta-hemolytic streptococci (GABHS). Performance of a GABHS test prior to antibiotic prescribing is recommended for children with sore throat. Penicillin, amoxicillin, erythromycin, and first-generation cephalosporins are the recommended antibiotics for treatment of sore throat due to GABHS.
Objectives: To measure rates of antibiotic prescribing and GABHS testing and to evaluate the association between testing and antibiotic treatment for children with sore throat.
Design, setting, and participants: Analysis of visits by children aged 3 to 17 years with sore throat to office-based physicians, hospital outpatient departments, and emergency departments in the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, 1995 to 2003 (N = 4158) and of a subset of visits with GABHS testing data (n = 2797).
Main outcome measures: National rates of antibiotic prescribing, prescribing of antibiotics recommended and not recommended for GABHS, and GABHS testing.
Results: Physicians prescribed antibiotics in 53% (95% confidence interval [CI], 49%-56%) of an estimated 7.3 million annual visits for sore throat and nonrecommended antibiotics to 27% (95% CI, 24%-31%) of children who received an antibiotic. Antibiotic prescribing decreased from 66% of visits in 1995 to 54% of visits in 2003 (P = .01 for trend). This decrease was attributable to a decrease in the prescribing of recommended antibiotics (49% to 38%; P = .002). Physicians performed a GABHS test in 53% (95% CI, 48%-57%) of visits and in 51% (95% CI, 45%-57%) of visits at which an antibiotic was prescribed. GABHS testing was not associated with a lower antibiotic prescribing rate overall (48% tested vs 51% not tested; P = .40), but testing was associated with a lower antibiotic prescribing rate for children with diagnosis codes for pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and streptococcal sore throat (57% tested vs 73% not tested; P<.001).
Conclusions: Physicians prescribed antibiotics to 53% of children with sore throat, in excess of the maximum expected prevalence of GABHS. Although there was a decrease in the proportion of children receiving antibiotics between 1995 and 2003, this was due to decreased prescribing of agents recommended for GABHS. Although GABHS testing was associated with a lower rate of antibiotic prescribing for children with diagnosis codes of pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and streptococcal sore throat, GABHS testing was underused.