Acute otitis media and antibiotics - a systematic review

Dan Med J. 2020 Oct 29;67(11):A04200272.


Introduction: Although acute otitis media (AOM) is a very frequent illness in children, it remains unclear to what extent children with AOM benefit from antibiotics (ABX). This systematic review aimed to clarify this subject by including randomised clinical trials (RCTs) from the pneumococcal vaccine era only.

Methods: We performed a systematic literature search in four databases from 1 January 2000 to 1 January 2019 for RCTs comparing ABX to placebo in patients with AOM. Pain was registered as the main outcome. Adverse events (AE), development of contralateral otitis media, tympanic membrane perforation, late AOM recurrence, abnormal tympanometry and time to resolution of middle ear effusion were registered as secondary outcomes.

Results: Six publications based on five RCTs with 1,862 patients were included. The number needed to treat (NNT) to reduce pain varied from seven (pain at day 7-10) to 28 (pain at day 2-3). The NNT for preventing contralateral otitis was ten. AE were seen in every 13th patient treated with ABX.

Conclusions: ABX appears to have a limited effect on both primary and secondary outcomes compared with placebo. A substantial number of patients experienced AE. New RCTs are needed to further clarify the effect. Ideally, RCTs could be conducted in Danish general practices in collaboration with practicing ear, nose and throat specialists to obtain large unselected populations with high rates of vaccine coverage. Until more evidence is provided, ABX should be considered among children younger than two years of age with severe symptoms of AOM, i.e. fewer and affected well-being.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local
  • Otitis Media* / drug therapy
  • Tympanic Membrane Perforation*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents