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Survey Finds Overuse of Antibiotics Among Kids with Sore Throats

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AHRQ News and Numbers

Release date: September 6, 2006

About 14 percent of U.S. children visit a health professional at least once a year for serious sore throat, and more than two-thirds of these are prescribed antibiotics, according to a survey by the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

But the Federal survey also found that roughly one of every five children prescribed an antibiotic did not receive a throat swab to confirm a bacterial infection. Antibiotics can cure sore throats caused by bacteria but cannot cure those caused by viruses.

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 results are negative. Children with an intermediate probability should not be prescribed antibiotics until swabbing confirms an infection.

The AHRQ survey also found:

  • About 30 percent of children under the age of 5 were prescribed antibiotics without having their throats swabbed, as were 18 percent of those ages 5 to 12 and 24 percent of children in the 13-to-17 age bracket.
  • Hispanic children who were prescribed antibiotics were less likely to have their throats swabbed than white non-Hispanic children—72 percent versus 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).

The data in this AHRQ News and Numbers summary is taken from the Agency's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), the nation's most complete survey of how Americans use and pay for health care, including their health insurance coverage. AHRQ, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, works to enhance America's health care system by developing and promoting evidence to improve quality, efficiency, effectiveness, and safety.

For more information, access MEPS Statistical Brief No. 137: Treatment of Sore Throats: Antibiotic Prescriptions and Throat Cultures for Children under 18 Years of Age, 2002-2004 (Annual Average) (PDF Help).

To speak with an AHRQ data expert, please contact Bob Isquith at or call (301) 427-1539.

Current as of September 2006.


The information on this page is archived and provided for reference purposes only.


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