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Almost 70 percent of children visiting a physician for a sore throat are prescribed antibiotics

Data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) show that 14 percent of U.S. children visit a health professional at least once a year for serious sore throat, and over two-thirds of these children are prescribed antibiotics. MEPS data also show that about 1 of every 5 children prescribed an antibiotic did not receive a throat swab to confirm a bacterial infection. Sore throats caused by bacteria can be cured by antibiotics; those caused by viruses cannot.

The Michigan Quality Improvement Consortium recommends that children with a high probability for streptococcus pharyngitis (a bacterial infection known as "strep throat") be started immediately on antibiotics. The treatment should stop if a swab is obtained and the results are negative. Children with an intermediate probability should not be prescribed antibiotics until swabbing confirms infection.

MEPS data also indicate that:

  • About 30 percent of children under age 5 were prescribed antibiotics without having their throats swabbed, as were 18 percent of those ages 5 to 12 and 24 percent of children ages 13 to 17.
  • Hispanic children who were prescribed antibiotics were less likely to have their throats swabbed than white non-Hispanic children ­ 72 percent vs. 81 percent, respectively.
  • Privately insured children prescribed antibiotics were more likely to get a throat swab (81 percent) than children covered by Medicaid or other public insurance only (71 percent).

For more information, go to MEPS Statistical Brief #137: Treatment of Sore Throats: Antibiotic Prescriptions and Throat Cultures for Children under 18 Years of Age, 2002-2004 (Annual Average) on the MEPS Web site at http://www.meps.ahrq.gov/mepsweb/data_files/publications/st137/stat137.pdf (PDF Help).

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