Antibiotics are a powerful tool for fighting infection in adults and children, but thinking you or your child needs an antibiotic to knock out every infection isn’t only unwise, it can be bad for your health.
Antibiotics don’t work on viruses, for example. So, they’re ineffective when it comes to the flu, the common cold, most runny noses and coughs.
“Taking antibiotics when you have a virus can do more harm than good,” says Lauren Bailey, MD, pediatrician at Our Lady of Lourdes Women’s & Children’s Hospital.
“Your child will still feel sick, and the antibiotic could give your child a skin rash, diarrhea, a yeast infection or worse,” Dr. Bailey says.
“If your child has a cough, sore throat or other illness, tell your child’s pediatrician you only want your child to take an antibiotic if it’s necessary,” Dr. Bailey says. “Ask what you can do to help your child feel better and to feel relief from symptoms without antibiotics.”
Adaora Uzodi, MD, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases for Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, says parents sometimes request antibiotics for their children out of a desire to do something—anything—to help their children feel better. Sometimes, it’s not the best idea.
“We prescribe antibiotics where evidence has revealed clear, proven benefits that outweigh the risks or harmful side effects,” Dr. Uzodi says.
Understanding the most effective use of antibiotics will help you speak with your child’s pediatrician and to make better-informed care decisions.
Antibiotics work by killing bacteria, or preventing them from reproducing or spreading. Providers have learned to target the use of antibiotics as evidence has grown about their risks and side effects. For example, antibiotics are no longer routine for many cases of ear infections, sore throat or chest infections in children.
Antibiotics are not recommended when:
- An infection is caused by a virus rather than bacteria.
- They’re not likely to speed up your healing.
- They’re likely to cause side effects.
- Taking them for trivial conditions might render them less effective if your child needs them for a more serious illness in the future.
Doctors do recommend antibiotics for:
- Minor conditions that may not clear up on their own, such as severe acne
- Minor conditions that, untreated, could infect others, including impetigo
- Conditions for which evidence has shown antibiotics speed up recovery, such as a kidney infection
- Conditions that, if untreated, might lead to more serious complications such as cellulitis or pneumonia
- Preventing infection, such as for certain surgeries where an infection could cause severe illness or complications, such as eye surgery, joint replacement, heart surgery or surgery to remove the gallbladder or appendix
- Patients with certain medical conditions who are vulnerable to infection, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or those with blood disorders like sickle cell anemia
- Patients who experience recurring illnesses, such as cellulitis or urinary tract infections
- Bites and certain wounds
Is Your Child at risk?
Some people are at greater risk for severe infections and require antibiotics. They include:
- Patients with heart failure.
- Patients who take insulin to manage diabetes.
- Patients with a weakened immune system, including those receiving chemotherapy for cancer or patients with HIV.