Antibiotics: What You Need to Know

Most of the time, your child probably doesn’t need an antibiotic when she or he is sick. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 80 percent of antibiotics prescribed for respiratory illnesses are unnecessary.

Why?

Because antibiotics can only cure bacterial illnesses; they will NOT cure illnesses that are caused by viruses. And viral infections are generally self-limiting—your body’s immune system will get rid of the virus over a period of time. Typical viral illnesses include the common cold, influenza, and most sore throats and coughs.

Quick facts about illnesses and antibiotics

  • Mucus color (drainage from the nose) is not an indicator of a bacterial infection. Many parents believe that if the nose drainage is yellow or green, it must be a bacterial infection. In fact, cold viruses can cause all sorts of colors of mucus.
  • Many ear infections will go away without antibiotics. That’s right. Often pain medicine and time will cure an ear infection, even a bacterial one. The body’s immune system can even fight many mild bacterial illnesses. Many parents, however, don’t like this “watch and see” approach as it may mean a visit back to the doctor to recheck the ear.  
  • Sinus infections can be viral. And, in fact, over 75 percent of acute sinus infections will also go away without antibiotics.
  • If an illness is due to a virus, antibiotics will not shorten the duration of the illness or decrease its contagiousness.
  • Children as a group have the highest rate of antibiotic use.

What’s the problem with using antibiotics?

  • Antibiotic resistance. This is the greatest concern to all of us as a society. Overuse and improper use of antibiotics (including in farm animals being raised for meat) have led to the development of resistant bacteria, which means that those antibiotics no longer work on people when we really need them. Infection with an antibiotic-resistant bacterium can lead to hospitalization—and there are bacteria emerging that don’t respond to any existing antibiotics. That’s scary!
  • Side effects of antibiotics. Vomiting, diarrhea, and allergic reactions (sometimes severe) are not uncommon with antibiotic use, not to mention that they also kill all the good bacteria in the gut. Why risk these if antibiotics are not necessary for the illness at hand?

What can parents do?

  • Don’t ask for or demand an antibiotic if your physician doesn’t feel that one is indicated. A study showed that pediatricians cave to parental pressure. Pediatricians prescribed antibiotics 62 percent of the time when a parent expected or asked for one. They only prescribed an antibiotic seven percent of the time when there was no parental expectation for an antibiotic.
  • If you suspect strep, take your child for a throat culture—don’t ask for an antibiotic over the phone. Only 1 in 5 children with a sore throat actually have strep. Don’t treat a sore throat with an antibiotic unless you have a throat culture confirming strep.
  • Be patient. A viral illness can last 10 to 14 days, with the worst part of the illness usually in days three to six. Don’t rush to the doctor on day three unless something is extremely concerning. Supportive care and time are usually your best friends.
  • If the doctor does give your child an antibiotic, be responsible—finish that antibiotic as directed and don’t share the antibiotic with anyone else. Not finishing the full course of an antibiotic can promote the development of resistant bacteria. In addition, if you have antibiotic left over, throw it away. Don’t use a few doses on someone else. This is potentially dangerous and also contributes to the growth of resistant bacteria. 

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