Amid headlines about untreatable “nightmare bacteria,” experts warn that overuse of antibiotics, particularly for kids, has created a looming “antibiotic apocalypse.” New medical guidelines and a public health campaign by the CDC highlight the extreme importance of avoiding needless use of these drugs, which often do more harm than good.
It’s been common for parents to demand antibiotics for every sniffle and ear infection—and for doctors to write a prescription without thinking twice about the potential dangers of misusing the medications. In fact, the average American child receives 10 to 20 courses of antibiotics by age 18.
What’s the right way to protect kids’ health—and how can parents tell if antibiotics are actually needed? Here’s a look at what you need to know.
In an intriguing article in the Atlantic, infectious disease specialist Tim Lahey and his wife, Jessica, discuss how shocked their friends are to learn that their 14-year-old son has never taken antibiotics.
As the Laheys write, “Our friends are smart, highly educated people who know that antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. They know that most colds are caused by viruses. But they are also dedicated parents who would do anything for their kids, and when a child is sick, clear reasoning can get clouded by fear, desperation, and the lure of a quick fix.”
The article also captures the mindset that leads to antibiotic misuse for viral conditions like a cold or bronchitis. “After a week or two of yuck and snot [parents have] had it -- so they call the pediatrician for an antibiotic. The harried doctor knows it's likely viral but doesn't want to fight with yet another parent about antibiotics -- so out comes a prescription.”
Among the hazards of improperly prescribed antibiotics are these:
As the Atlantic reports, “Every year, more and more children with viral illnesses are given unnecessary antibiotics, and as a result, the bacteria floating around in our bodies get exposed to those antibiotics and evolve, gaining resistance to even our most powerful antibiotics.”
And the superbugs keep getting scarier. Not only are there recent reports of worldwide spread of completely drug resistant infections from E. coli and related bacteria striking hospital and nursing home patients, but there are now cases of nearly untreatable STDs, including drug resistant gonorrhea in the United States.
“Fast forward a few years and many fear there will be no life preservers left to toss to our kids, at which point we could be back where we were 100 years ago, watching people die from what are currently nuisance illnesses easily cured with a pill,” the Laheys write.
As scientists scramble to find new antibiotics—a type of drug research that gets relatively little funding—it’s crucial to avoid misusing the ones that we already have. Here’s what parents should know to help ward of the antibiotic apocalypse—the era when there are no effective treatments for killer diseases.
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