October 27, 2021

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Uncomplicated Pediatric Chest Infection: Antibiotics Don’t Help

Unless pneumonia is suspected, clinicians should not prescribe antibiotics for most children with chest infections, according to findings of the ARTIC-PC randomized controlled trial, published in The Lancet.

“Prescribing for children with uncomplicated chest infections is still common in most countries,” said lead author Paul Little, MD, professor of primary care research at the University of Southampton, in Southampton, England, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

But there are barriers to stopping this practice, he said. “If you prescribe an antibiotic and the child gets better, even if the antibiotic was not doing that much, the parents then think that it was the antibiotic that was responsible for the recovery and so expect antibiotics the next time. So, physician prescribing of antibiotics in effect medicalizes illness and keeps the cycle of expectations, re-consultations, and prescriptions going.”

The study included 432 children aged 6 months to 12 years (median age, 3.2 years) who presented at 56 general practices in England with acute, uncomplicated lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) of less than 21 days’ duration and in whom pneumonia was not suspected clinically. The children were randomly assigned to undergo 7 days of treatment with either amoxicillin 50 mg/kg or placebo. The primary outcome was duration of symptoms rated moderately bad or worse.

For up to 4 weeks, parents scored symptoms — including cough, phlegm, shortness of breath, wheeze, blocked or runny nose, disturbed sleep, feeling generally unwell, fever, and interference with normal activities — in a daily diary. The secondary outcome was symptom severity. Prespecified analyses were made for key clinical subgroups of patients for whom clinicians commonly prescribe (those with chest signs, fever, physician rating of unwell, sputum or chest rattle, and shortness of breath).

There was no significant difference in outcome between children treated with antibiotics and those treated with placebo. The median duration of moderately bad or worse symptoms was similar between the antibiotics group and the placebo group (5 vs 6 days; hazard ratio [HR[, 1.13), as was the median time until symptoms were rated absent or as causing very little problem (7 vs 8 days; HR, 1.09). There was a small significant difference between the groups in symptom severity score on days 2–4 after seeing the doctor (1.8 in the antibiotics group vs 2.1 in the placebo group), “which was equivalent to less than one child in three rating symptoms a slight problem rather than very little problem,” the study authors report. “The treatment effects for all outcomes were similar for most subgroups…but the effect of antibiotics was slightly, but not significantly, greater among those with fever or those who were unwell,” they add.

The investigators conclude that “similar to adults, antibiotics are unlikely to make a clinically important difference to the symptom burden for uncomplicated lower respiratory tract infections in children — both overall, and for the key clinical subgroups where antibiotic prescribing is most common.” They recommend that clinicians provide “safety-netting advice” to parents, such as explaining what illness course to expect and when a return visit would be necessary.

The findings provide “more evidence to do less,” wrote Rianne Oostenbrink, MD, PhD, from Erasmus MC-Sophia, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Lina Jankauskaite, MD, PhD, from Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, in Kaunas, Lithuania, in an accompanying comment.

“Overtesting and overtreatment of children are especially prominent in infectious diseases, when fever or other symptoms such as cough can be unspecific and can be of viral or bacterial origin,” they write.

The commenters note that despite antibiotics, most children did have moderately bad or worse symptoms on day 3, and symptoms had improved in about 75% of children in both groups at day 14. “A notable finding of this study is that only a few children had moderately bad or worse symptoms by day 14, and antibiotics did not alleviate the symptoms compared with placebo. Additionally, this trial aligns with other studies that have shown that reducing antibiotic treatment for LRTI is not associated with prolonged morbidity or higher incidence of complications.”

The study was funded by the UK National Institute for Health Research. Little, Jankauskaite, and Oostenbrink have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet. Published online September 22, 2021. Full text, Comment

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