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Antibiotics: When They Help and When They Hurt

Nov 19, 2019
Mother administering antibiotics to her child

Imagine you are at the doctor’s office and your child is miserable with a fever, stuffy nose and sore throat. After the exam, the doctor suggests that the illness is most likely viral. Should you ask for an antibiotic anyway?

Antibiotics save lives, but only when they are used to treat the right kind of infection and are not overused.

What’s the Right Kind of Infection?

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, not viral infections. Bacterial infections include things like strep throat or urinary tract infection. The common cold or stomach flu are viral infections. Antibiotics won’t help if an infection is caused by a virus, and they may even cause harm.

Doctors may take samples to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection. Some antibiotics are more effective against certain types of bacteria. The doctor will work to ensure the infection is treated with the best antibiotic for that bacteria.

What Happens When Antibiotics Are Overused?

Antibiotics, like other medications, may cause side effects. Giving your child antibiotics when they aren’t needed puts your child at risk for those side effects. Common side effects related to antibiotic use include:

  • Rash
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Allergic reaction

In fact, antibiotics are the most common reason for Emergency Department visits for adverse drug events in children.

Additionally, when antibiotics are overused, they can create antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance means that bacteria have changed and cannot be killed by the antibiotics. The more antibiotics are used, the more bacteria become resistant. Eventually, experts are concerned that some bacteria may become resistant to all known antibiotics.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year in the United States, 2 million people get infected with antibiotics-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die as a result.

Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria:

  • Are harder to treat
  • May make your child sicker
  • May last longer
  • May cost more money to treat
  • Can be deadly

What Can I Do to Protect My Child and Prevent Antibiotic Resistance?

The next time your child is sick enough to see a doctor, start by asking if your child’s illness is caused by bacteria or a virus. You should also:

  • Dispose of leftover antibiotics. Never save antibiotics for future illnesses.
  • Never give your child antibiotics prescribed for others.
  • Never share antibiotics with others.
  • Make sure your child has received all recommended vaccines.
What Are Normal Side Effects from Antibiotics and What Might Be an Allergic Reaction?
Learn More

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Joshua Watson, MD
Infectious Diseases

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.