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Healthy Kids: When are antibiotics needed?
When your child is sick, you want to do everything you can to make them feel better. Sometimes, antibiotics are the answer—and sometimes, they can cause more harm than good.
“When people come to see us, they are often disappointed when we say, ‘Gosh, I’m so sorry, I think what you have is viral. I can’t give you antibiotics.’ The reason is antibiotics won’t help,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw with Eugene Pediatric Associates.
Antibiotics kill bacteria. While these drugs can be life-saving, they don’t work on an illness caused by a virus. When antibiotics are misused, over time, the medicine becomes less effective and bacteria becomes resistant. Meaning, one day, you could need an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection, but it won’t work. That’s why it’s important that your doctor do a thorough evaluation before prescribing antibiotics.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least half of all ear infections will clear up without antibiotics. To help ease your child’s pain, Dr. Bradshaw recommends applying a warm or cool compress just below the ear. Children over 6 months old can be given an age-appropriate dose of Advil, Motrin or Ibuprofen.
“They’re all the same thing. They last 6-8 hours, they’re great for pain and swelling, as with an ear infection, and they’re very good for fever,” says Dr. Bradshaw.
More than 80 percent of sore throats are caused by a virus, not bacteria, and should not be treated with antibiotics. Strep throat, however, is caused by bacteria. Symptoms include fever, redness and trouble swallowing. But most children with those symptoms do not have strep throat. To determine which it might be, your doctor should recommend that your child get a strep test before taking antibiotics.
Colds and coughs
Colds, influenza and other respiratory infections are caused by viruses. Unfortunately, these illnesses just need to play out, but there are things you can do to help relieve their symptoms:
- Drink more fluids.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
“Over the age of 3 months, you can use Vicks BabyRub on their chest to help relieve coughing. That’s been shown to be more effective than any over-the-counter cough medicine,” says Dr. Bradshaw.
If your child is not getting better, or gets better and then worse again, be sure to follow up with your doctor.
“If your kid is not getting better as your doctor expected, call and go back in. We’re seeing a lot of kids who have persistent viruses and then some other illness stacks on, so that’s why we always want to reevaluate,” says Dr. Bradshaw.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for your child, be sure to use them appropriately by following these steps:
- Give the medicine exactly as directed.
- Don’t skip doses or stop the medicine early, even if your child is feeling better.
- Do not save leftover antibiotics to treat another illness later.
Taking medicine prescribed for a previous illness allows bacteria to multiply and increases the risk that your child will become resistant to antibiotics down the road, when he or she needs them.