Parents may often perceive antibiotics as a cure-all for every illness. But although antibiotics are a powerful tool for fighting bacterial infections, there are downsides to using them. Overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics can lead to the emergence of bacteria that are stronger and resistant to the current antibiotics we have available. In fact, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared antibiotic resistance as one of the world’s most urgent health problems. “When parents come in with their sick child, they want them to get better as quickly as possible and may assume an antibiotic prescription is the answer,” says Stephanie C. Chiang, M.D., MPH, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “But they should only be prescribed when truly necessary.”
When to Use Antibiotics
Antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections and will not cure or shorten the length of viral infections such as the common cold, sore throats (except those caused by step, a bacterial infection), flu and infections that cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Viral infections are much more common in children than bacterial infections. In fact, it’s normal for most children to get between seven to 10 viral infections a year. Antibiotics won’t stop the spread of viral infections or help someone with a viral infection feel better.
Antibiotics: Do’s and Don’ts
- If your child has a bacterial infection (such as strep throat, pneumonia, an ear infection or urinary tract infection) and your doctor prescribes antibiotics, make sure you follow these important steps:
- Always complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed by your child’s doctor, even if your child is feeling better. This will help ensure that the infection has been fully eliminated.
- Discard any leftover medication once the course is completed. Call the California Poison Control System at (800) 222-1222 or check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for information regarding the safe disposal of medication.
- Do not share your child’s antibiotic medication with other children. The dosage may not be correct as antibiotics for children are often prescribed based on weight. In addition, it may not be the right medication for the other child’s illness.
Know that antibiotics can have side effects. The most common are allergic reactions and an upset stomach that might include nausea and loose stools.
Beyond the Antibiotics: What Else You Can Do
Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids to help his or her body fight the infection. If your child’s condition has not improved once the course of antibiotics is completed, check in with your child’s doctor.
Stephanie C. Chiang, M.D., MPH is a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Fremont Center.