Advice on Antibiotics for Kids During Shortages

Katie K. Lockwood, MD, MEd; Rebecca G. Same, MD


February 03, 2023

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Pharmacies are running out of the antibiotics used to treat serious infections in children. This leaves parents and doctors frustrated and scared. Here is what pediatricians want you to know.

After weeks of overcrowded waiting rooms, extended office hours, and countless telephone calls during the viral respiratory surge, pediatricians are now facing a new challenge: an ever-growing list of medication shortages, including many of the most commonly used antibiotics.

These shortages primarily affect liquid formulations, so children — and the pediatricians' offices and pharmacies serving them — are disproportionately impacted. Though there are multiple factors contributing, antibiotic overuse for viral infections during the surge has undoubtedly catalyzed the current crisis. It can be scary for parents to watch a child miserable with fever, which is why parents and pediatricians look for a quick fix in antibiotics, but unnecessary prescriptions that contribute to ongoing shortages should be avoided. We, as practicing pediatricians, think that this is a moment for reflection on when and why we use antibiotics during viral season. Though antibiotic overuse may have led us into this shortage, better antibiotic stewardship may just lead us out of it.

Since amoxicillin was approved for medical use in 1974, it has been one of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in children. It is particularly well-suited for use in children because it treats common pediatric infections such as ear infections, strep throat, and pneumonia. These factors, along with its low cost and bubblegum flavor, make it no surprise that amoxicillin was consistently one of the top 25 medications prescribed in the United States between 2013 and 2019, with over 25 million prescriptions annually.

Amoxicillin remains the best first-line treatment option for the most common bacterial respiratory tract infections in children. With liquid formulations scarce, pediatricians, parents, and pharmacists are getting creative with crushed tablets or sprinkling capsules when possible.

However, without liquid amoxicillin readily available in our pediatric arsenal, we have recently had to turn to antibiotics with higher costs and more side effects. These broad-spectrum antibiotics target a more extensive range of bacteria and are rarely necessary for common pediatric infections. Further, their use risks increasing the already dire problem of antibiotic resistance, which causes more than 35,000 deaths in the United States each year. And perhaps most importantly, broader spectrum antibiotics aren't better than amoxicillin for the treatment of respiratory tract infections; they are sometimes worse.

The urge to turn to antibiotics as a potential cure for childhood illnesses is an understandable one for parents and clinicians alike. A common refrain in pediatrician offices is, "Isn't there anything we can give them?" as parents look for respite in a long viral season. As viruses continue to surge, it is helpful to remember that children will get eight to 10 viral infections per year, with most of those occurring in the fall and winter. When parents report that their child is always sick, they aren't far off.

Most of these infections will be cured by a child's own immune system rather than our medications. For example, in children older than 2 years, studies have demonstrated that waiting about 2 days to start antibiotics after an ear infection is diagnosed is just as effective as starting the antibiotics right away. As tempting as it is to ask for antibiotics early, that prescription may only worsen the situation if it is a virus. Instead, pediatricians can offer parents support in treating their children at home with humidifiers, pain/fever relievers when appropriate, honey in children over 12 months, and hydration.

This drug shortage is a pivotal moment for parents and clinicians to reconsider how and when we use antibiotics during viral season. Though antibiotics may be one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, it is how we use them now that will determine our health in the century to come.

Katie K. Lockwood, MD, MEd, is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Lockwood is also an attending physician in the Department of Primary Care at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Rebecca G. Same, MD, is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Same is also an attending physician in the Department of Primary Care at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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