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Why antibiotics aren't always the answer

October 10, 2016

When our kids get sick, we often feel desperate for relief and many parents look to antibiotics to help their children get better faster.

Here’s why that might not be such a good idea:

Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections

Antibiotics are a specific type of medication that targets infections caused by bacteria. Antibiotics do nothing to help with an illness that is caused by a virus. However, it is often difficult to tell whether your child’s symptoms are caused by a virus or bacteria, and that is where we rely on the expertise of our pediatricians. 

Common cold symptoms such as cough, runny nose, sore throat and congestion are most often caused by a virus and will get better over the course of several days without any medication. While it is true that in certain situations (common with ear infections) a viral illness may precede a bacterial infection, that isn’t always the case. Simply because your child has a virus doesn’t mean they will get a bacterial infection, and treating them for an infection they do not have can be dangerous.

One of every 10 children who receive treatment with an antibiotic will experience a side effect from the medication. Courtney Schmidt, PharmD

Antibiotic resistance is a real concern

Bacteria are tiny organisms that grow and change in response to their environment. When they have been exposed to an antibiotic repeatedly, these organisms have the opportunity to mutate, to find a way to outsmart the medication. We call that antibiotic resistance. Because of an abundance of use and misuse of antibiotics in the world around us, antibiotic resistance has become a real threat to each and every one of us. Resistance is happening much faster than we are able to develop new treatments, making illnesses that were easy to treat twenty years ago (think a staph infection on your skin) a sometimes life-threatening illness today.

Does this mean we should become paralyzed with fear? Absolutely not. But, it’s important to recognize that antibiotic use comes with a metaphorical price tag. Because of the high cost of using them inappropriately, we want to use them carefully. So when your doctor tells you that an antibiotic isn’t likely to help your child, know that this is a thoughtful, scientifically-based conclusion, one that is meant to protect your child from harm rather than withhold something that could help ease their suffering.

Side effects are a concern, too

One of every 10 children who receive treatment with an antibiotic will experience a side effect from the medication. These side effects may vary including nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, rashes or allergic reactions. Antibiotic use can also change the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut resulting in an overgrowth of the bacteria Clostridium difficile or “C diff.” This most commonly occurs in patients who are receiving antibiotics in the hospital, and this infection can cause severe diarrhea. It is yet one more reason why it is important to limit the use of antibiotics to situations where they are necessary and likely to be effective.

Some other helpful information to keep in mind

You might be confused by some common misconceptions. Here are a few things to know:

  • Some people believe that if a person has cold symptoms, clear mucus means they have a virus and green or yellow mucus means they have a bacterial infection. However during the course of a cold, it is common for mucus to change from clear and runny to thick and colored. This on its own cannot tell us whether the illness is viral or bacterial.
  • Every ear infection doesn’t have to be treated with antibiotics. In fact,roughly half of all ear infections will get better on their own without medication. Without a high fever or ear pain, it may be beneficial to wait and see if it resolves before giving antibiotics. Talk to your doctor about which course of action is best for your child.
  • Antibiotics are specifically tailored to treat certain types of bacteria in certain areas of the body. What works for one illness in one person may not be effective for another. Finish the entire course of treatment as your doctor has prescribed and if there is any leftover medication, discard it. Sharing antibiotics with others can be ineffective and sometimes dangerous.
  • Antibiotic medications are vital for the treatment of many illnesses. It’s important to remember, though, that they must be used carefully and appropriately in order to receive the most benefit and prevent unwanted complications.