Sick Again: Does Your Child Need Antibiotics?

Your child is running a low fever, has a runny nose and sore throat, and is coughing up green phlegm. Naturally, you take them in to see the doctor. But when your doctor prescribes nothing more than monitoring the situation, you get angry, upset, or confused... What about antibiotics?

Know this: There are actually good reasons for this wait and see approach. Antibiotics may not always be the best solution.

What Antibiotics Can – and Cannot Do

The invention of antibiotics was a huge step forward in modern medicine. With it, doctors can treat children for illnesses like pneumonia, which in the past often proved fatal. Today, doctors can easily kill off the bacteria that’s causing your child’s infections with pills, or a suspension.

Not all infections are caused by bacteria, though. Some are caused by virusesand antibiotics are simply not effective at killing them off. Viruses, unlike bacteria, are not actually considered to be “alive,” and getting rid of them is a whole other matter. Generally, treating viral infections is a matter of rest, pushing fluids, and letting the infection run its course.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons parents request antibiotics: Ear infections, sore throats, and the cold or flu.

Ear Infections

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons for doctor visits. There are times, however, when the doctor will also opt for a “wait and see” approach, especially if:

  • Pain is mild
  • Pain is only in one ear
  • Temperature is at or below 102 degrees

Many times, these infections will clear up on their own without antibiotics. Instead, your doctor might prescribe ear drops that are antibiotic free, but will ease ear pain and make your child more comfortable.

However, if the pain is severe, in both ears, or the temperature is above 102, doctors will start your child on an antibiotic course of treatment.

Sore Throats

Sore throats are a common symptom of many respiratory infections. However, most of these infections are viral – not bacterial. Even if your child is coughing up green phlegm, this is not a sign of a bacterial infection– viruses can cause this, too. While the virus runs its course, sore throats can be treated with lozenges or cough drops, cough syrup, and even home remedies like hot tea with honey and lemon.

An exception to this rule is a throat infection caused by group A streptococci. “Strep throat” infections can have serious complications if left untreated, and can lead to infections in the kidneys or the heart. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics in this case, for sure.

The Cold and Flu

During the cold and flu season, you may think you need antibiotics. However, both the cold and flu are also viral infections. Rest, comfort care, and the passage of time are the best treatment.

What's even better is cold and flu prevention. Make sure your child washes his hands frequently, limit contact with those who are ill, and get a flu vaccine annually. A good diet and plenty of rest also keep the immune system strong.

The Side Effects of Antibiotics

Antibiotics kill off bad bacteria – but they kill off good bacteria, too. These good bacteria live in the gut and help with digestion and immunity. Once they are killed off, you’ll be facing a whole new host of health concerns: Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Children can also have an allergic reaction to antibiotics. Most of the time, the reaction is mild, and the most common symptom is hives. However, sometimes the reaction can be more severe and can even require emergency medical treatment.

Bacterial Resistance

Bacteria, like any living thing, can change. And overuse of antibiotics has meant that many species of bacteria have developed antibiotic resistance. This means that antibiotic medications that used to be effective are no longer able to treat an infection.

If a child gets infected with resistant bacteria, they will often have to be hospitalized and given special medications through an IV. Already, many infections that affect children (like pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, or even meningitis) are getting more difficult to treat because of bacterial resistance.

Antibiotics Do’s and Don’ts

If your child is given a round of antibiotics, here are some guidelines for using them safely:

  • Always discuss the pros and cons of using an antibiotic with your doctor. This way you can make an informed decision about treatment.
  • Always give your child the full course of prescribed antibiotics. Don’t stop them early even if your child appears to feel better.
  • Always take the antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Do not skip doses.
  • Always tell the doctor if your child develops hives or other signs of an allergic reaction.
  • Never use old or leftover antibiotics. Expired antibiotics can sometimes be toxic.
  • Never give your child antibiotics that have been prescribed for another family member.
  • Ask your doctor when it’s ok to give your child probiotics while on antibiotics. This can help reduce digestive issues.

Has your child ever had a reaction to antibiotics? Or do you try to keep them off medication altogether?

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