Prescriptions for U.S. children fell by about one-quarter during the COVID-19 pandemic, with prescriptions for antibiotics alone plunging by more than 50%, a new study finds.
The findings are a "national picture of prescription drug dispensing to children before and during the pandemic. It will be important to monitor whether the reductions we demonstrate are temporary or sustained," said study author Dr. Kao-Ping Chua, a pediatrician and researcher at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
Chua's group analyzed data from 92% of U.S. pharmacies. They found that from January 2018 to February 2020, nearly 25.8 million prescriptions were dispensed to children under age 19 each month. But dispensing totals during the first eight months of the pandemic were about 27% lower than during the same period in 2019.
Prescribing of antibiotics and other drugs typically prescribed for acute infections fell by nearly 51%, while prescribing of drugs for chronic diseases such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and asthma declined by 17%.
"It is unclear whether the decline in ADHD prescriptions reflect a reduced need for medications at school due to the transition to remote learning, disruptions in medication access, or delays in diagnosis," said Chua.
As for asthma prescriptions, the number of asthma attacks in U.S. children dropped sharply during the pandemic, so the decline in asthma medication dispensing likely reflects better control of the disease, the researchers suggested.
There was no change in prescriptions for antidepressants, according to the study published July 20 in the journal Pediatrics.
"The decline in the number of children receiving antibiotics is consistent with the large decreases in infection-related pediatric visits during 2020," Chua said in a university news release.
"Because antibiotics have important side effects, the dramatic decreases in antibiotic dispensing may be a welcome development," he added. "However, declines in dispensing of chronic disease drugs could be concerning."
The "decrease in antibiotic dispensing most likely reflects reductions in infections, such as colds and strep throat, due to COVID-19 risk-mitigation measures like social distancing and face masks," Chua said. "As a result, children had fewer infection-related visits and had fewer opportunities to receive antibiotic prescriptions, whether for antibiotic-appropriate conditions or antibiotic-inappropriate conditions."
The study also found a nearly 80% drop in prescription medications to treat symptoms of the common cold, particularly to suppress coughs.
"These drugs have little benefit, but are associated with potentially harmful side effects, particularly in young children," Chua said. "From the perspective of health care quality, the sharp decline in dispensing of cough-and-cold medications may represent a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic."
There was also a sharp decline in prescriptions dispensed to adult Americans during the pandemic, followed by a significant rebound. This study found that prescribing to children hasn't rebounded to the same degree.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on antibiotics.
SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, July 20, 2021