Every year, your family probably faces its share of
, sore throats, and viruses. When you bring your child to the
doctor for these illnesses, do you automatically expect a
prescription for antibiotics?
Many parents do. And they're surprised, maybe even angry, if
they leave the doctor's office empty-handed - after all, what
parent doesn't want their kid to get well as quickly as
possible? But your doctor could be doing you and your child a favor
by not reaching for the prescription pad.
How Antibiotics Work
Antibiotics, first used in the 1940s, are certainly one of the
great advances in medicine. But overprescribing them has resulted
in the development of bacteria that don't respond to
antibiotics that may have worked in the past. Plus, kids who take
antibiotics when they aren't necessary run the risk of
adverse reactions, such as stomach upset and diarrhea.
To understand how antibiotics work, it helps to know
about the two major types of
that can make people sick:
. Although certain bacteria and viruses cause diseases with similar
symptoms, the ways these two organisms multiply and spread illness
organisms existing as single cells. Bacteria are everywhere and
most don't cause any harm, and in some cases may be
beneficial. Lactobacillus, for example, lives in the intestine
and help digest food. But some bacteria are harmful and can cause
illness by invading the human body, multiplying, and interfering
with normal bodily processes. Antibiotics are effective against
bacteria because they work to kill these living organisms by
stopping their growth and reproduction.
, on the other hand, are
alive and cannot exist on their own - they are particles
containing genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. Viruses
"live," grow, and reproduce only after they've
invaded other living cells. Some viruses may be fought off by the
body's immune system before they cause illness, but others
(colds, for example) must simply run their course. Viruses do not
respond to antibiotics at all.
Why It's Harmful to Overuse Them
Taking antibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses not only
won't work, but also has a dangerous side effect: over time,
this practice helps create bacteria that have become more of a
challenge to kill. Frequent and inappropriate use of antibiotics
selects for strains of bacteria that can resist treatment. This is
called bacterial resistance. These resistant bacteria require
higher doses of medicine or stronger antibiotics to treat. Doctors
have even found bacteria that are resistant to some of the most
powerful antibiotics available today.
Antibiotic resistance is a widespread problem, and one that the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "one of
the world's most pressing public health problems."
Bacteria that were once highly responsive to antibiotics have
become increasingly resistant. Among those that are becoming harder
to treat are pneumococcal infections (which cause
, sinus infections, and
), skin infections, and
Taking Antibiotics Safely
So what should you do when your child gets sick? To minimize the
risk of bacterial resistance, keep these tips in mind:
Treat only bacterial infections.
Seek advice and ask questions.
Letting milder illnesses (especially those thought to be caused
by viruses) run their course to avoid the development of
drug-resistant germs may be a good idea - but it's still best
to leave what constitutes a "mild illness" up to your
doctor. Even if the symptoms don't worsen but linger, take
your child to the doctor. At the office, ask questions about
whether your child's illness is bacterial or viral, and
discuss the risks and benefits of antibiotics. If it's a
virus, don't pressure your doctor to prescribe antibiotics,
but ask about ways to treat symptoms.
Use antibiotics as prescribed.
Don't save antibiotics for next time.
Never use another person's prescription.
Ask your doctor about ways to treat the symptoms that are making
your child uncomfortable, such as a stuffy nose or scratchy throat,
without the use of antibiotics. The key to building a good
relationship with your doctor is open
, so work together toward that goal.
Use the medication properly. Antibiotics are only effective
against a bacterial infection if taken for the full amount of time
prescribed by the doctor - and they take time to kick in, too, so
don't expect your child to feel better after taking the first
dose. Most kids take 1 to 2 days to feel a lot better. Similarly,
don't let your child take antibiotics longer than
And most important, never use antibiotics that have been lying
around your home. Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for
another family member, either - doses for kids vary, and if your
child did have an illness requiring antibiotics, you'd want to
make sure you were treating it correctly. Saving antibiotics
"for the next time" is a bad idea, too. Any remaining
antibiotic should be thrown out as soon as your child has taken the
full course of medication.
Help fight antibiotic resistance by taking simple steps to
prevent the spread of infections. Encourage
, make sure your kids are up to date on
, and keep kids out of school when sick.
Doctors are aware of increasing antibiotic resistance and are
trying to solve the problem. New antibiotics may be on the horizon,
but antibiotics will continue to need to be prescribed and used
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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