Does taking probiotics (‘healthy bacteria’) prevent children from getting acute middle ear infections?
Acute middle ear infection is very common in childhood. It is caused by bacteria that travel from the upper part of the throat, through canals (called Eustachian tubes), to the middle ear. Symptoms include fever, earache, and occasionally the eardrum may perforate, discharging pus into the ear canal.
Antibiotics are often prescribed for acute middle ear infection, although they have only a modest effect on reducing symptoms. Moreover, excessive antibiotic use leads to antibiotic resistance, making them less effective for these and other infections. Consequently, preventing acute middle ear infection is highly desirable.
Probiotics are often sold as tablets or powders, as a food ingredient (e.g. in yogurt), and even sprayed directly into the throat. However, it is not yet clear whether they prevent acute middle ear infection. We analysed the scientific evidence to answer this question.
Study characteristics and searches
We searched and identified 17 randomised controlled trials (studies in which participants are assigned to one of two or more treatment groups using a random method), published before October 2018. All were conducted in Europe, and collectively included 3488 children. Twelve trials included children who were not prone to acute middle ear infections, whilst five trials included children who were prone to such infections.
One-third fewer children not prone to acute middle ear infection who took probiotics experienced acute middle ear infections compared to children not taking probiotics. However, probiotics may not benefit children prone to acute middle ear infection. Taking probiotics did not impact on the number of days of school that children missed. None of the studies reported on the impact of probiotics on the severity of acute middle ear infection. There was no difference between the group taking probiotics and the group not taking probiotics in the number of children experiencing adverse events (harms).
Quality of the evidence
The quality (or certainty) of the evidence was generally moderate (meaning that further research may change our estimates) or high (further research is unlikely to change our estimates). However, the trials differed in terms of types of probiotics evaluated, how often and for how long they were taken, and how the trial results were reported.
Probiotics may prevent AOM in children not prone to AOM, but the inconsistency of the subgroup analyses suggests caution in interpreting these results. Probiotics decreased the proportion of children taking antibiotics for any infection. The proportion of children experiencing adverse events did not differ between the probiotic and comparator groups. The optimal strain, duration, frequency, and timing of probiotic administration still needs to be established.
Acute otitis media (AOM), or acute middle ear infection, is one of the most frequently occurring childhood diseases, and the most common reason given for prescribing antibiotics in this age group. Guidelines often recommend antibiotics as first-line treatment for severe AOM. However, antibiotics also lead to antibiotic resistance, so preventing episodes of AOM is an urgent priority.
To assess the effects of probiotics to prevent the occurrence and reduce the severity of acute otitis media in children.
We searched CENTRAL, PubMed, Embase, and three other databases (October 2018), two trial registers (October 2018), and conducted a backwards and forwards citation analysis (August 2018). We did not apply any language, publication date, or publication status restrictions.
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of children (aged up to 18 years), comparing probiotics with placebo, usual care, or no probiotic.
Two review authors independently assessed the eligibility of trials for inclusion and risk of bias of the included trials, and extracted data using pre-piloted data extraction forms. We analysed dichotomous data as either risk ratio (RR) or odds ratios (OR) and continuous data as mean differences (MD).
We included 17 RCTs involving 3488 children, of which 16 RCTs were included in the meta-analyses. Of the 16 RCTs that reported the mean age of children, mean age overall was 2.4 years; in 4 RCTs the mean age of children participating in the trial was less than 1 year old; in 2 RCTs the mean age was between 1 and 2 years old; and in 10 RCTs the mean age was older than 2 years. Probiotic strains evaluated by the trials varied, with 11 of the included RCTs evaluating Lactobacillus-containing probiotics, and six RCTs evaluating Streptococcus-containing probiotics.
The proportion of children (i.e. the number of children in each group) experiencing one or more episodes of AOM during the treatment was lower for those taking probiotics (RR 0.77, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.63 to 0.93; 16 trials; 2961 participants; number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) = 10; moderate-certainty evidence).
Post hoc subgroup analysis found that among children not prone to otitis media, a lower proportion of children receiving probiotics experienced AOM (RR 0.64, 95% CI 0.49 to 0.84; 11 trials; 2227 participants; NNTB = 9; moderate-certainty evidence). However, among children who were otitis prone, there was no difference between probiotic and comparator groups (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.11; 5 trials; 734 participants; high-certainty evidence). The test for subgroup differences was significant (P = 0.007).
None of the included trials reported on the severity of AOM.
The proportion of children experiencing adverse events did not differ between the probiotic and comparator groups (OR 1.54, 95% CI 0.60 to 3.94; 4 trials; 395 participants; low-certainty evidence).
Probiotics decreased the proportion of children taking antibiotics for any infection (RR 0.66, 95% CI 0.51 to 0.86; 8 trials; 1768 participants; NNTB = 8; moderate-certainty evidence). Test for subgroup differences (use of antibiotic specifically for AOM, use of antibiotic for infections other than AOM) was not significant.
There was no difference in the mean number of school days lost (MD −0.95, 95% CI −2.47 to 0.57; 5 trials; 1280 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). There was no difference between groups in the level of compliance in taking the intervention (RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.99 to 1.05; 5 trials; 990 participants).
Probiotics decreased the proportion of children having other infections (RR 0.75, 95% CI 0.65 to 0.87; 11 trials; 3610 participants; NNTB = 12; moderate-certainty evidence). Test for subgroup differences (acute respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections) was not significant.
Probiotic strains trialled and their dose, frequency, and duration of administration varied considerably across studies, which likely contributed to the substantial levels of heterogeneity. Sensitivity testing of funnel plots did not reveal publication bias.