Your Child’s Sick: Do You Know if They Need Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are wonderful things. Since penicillin was first found and produced in the early twentieth century and used during the Second World War, it and related antibiotics have saved countless lives and cured many an illness quickly.

Antibiotics work by inhibiting certain growth factors and processes needed by bacteria to reproduce and flourish. As with many significant discoveries, penicillin was found purely by luck when an early twentieth century biochemist was trying to grow Staphylococcus (a type of bacteria). He opened the Petri dish to find that the growth of Staphylococcus seemed to be inhibited by a white substance growing next to it; that substance was studied and named “penicillin”, and indeed, did prevent growth of bacteria. The huge toll of injured and dying soldiers during the Second World War stimulated a renewed interest in the now decades old “antibiotic”, and it was pressed into service on battle fields around the world. Its successful wartime use spread to the private sector. Although initially used to help cure life threatening illnesses, it began to be used for even minor illnesses that would begin a trend that is still going on today.

The number of antibiotics in use today and their complexity is overwhelming and new ones are produced in ever increasing numbers. The primary reasons for producing a new antibiotic are to be able to treat an increasing number of bacteria known to be producing new diseases in people. Also the old antibiotics become outmoded when the existing bacteria develop very intricate mechanisms to shield themselves from the effects of the antibiotics (resistance).

Antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections, but many times well meaning health care professionals put them into use to possibly stop the advance of the viral illness (or secondary bacterial infections). Sometimes, antibiotics are dispensed at the insistent request of the parents who, in a misguided attempt to help “cure” their child of a viral illness, wish to use the latest antibiotic. At least in Pediatrics, an overwhelming majority of illness is due to viral infections and therefore speaks against the use of an antibiotic.

When antibiotics are used indiscriminately and in large amounts the following things can occur:

  1. More “allergic reactions” because of the widespread use of these drugs
  2. Increasing numbers of bacteria are developing resistances to these new and old drugs (leaving very few effective antibiotics for some very dangerous bacteria)

This is a trend that will probably continue unless health care professionals make this information available to the public. It is important to note, as new antibiotics are developed, the cost of delivering these to the portion of the population that really need them becomes prohibitive and adds tremendously to the cost of health care in this country. The process of getting a new medicine through the testing and the FDA is both very time consuming and expensive

Most of your child’s illnesses will be viral in origin and will not need an antibiotic. In addition, some routine illnesses that children get, such as ear infections, have been scrutinized carefully by researchers and their findings suggest that antibiotics may not be needed in mild ear infections. In fact, there are times that even severe ear infections can be followed carefully without the use of antibiotics as long as the pain is controlled. Every attempt is being made to limit the use of all antibiotics in general. There are certainly situations that require an antibiotic such as strep throat and certain types of pneumonia, but your doctor will discuss the options at the time of your visit.

Think both locally and globally when it comes to the use of antibiotics: it will help your child and children all over the world.

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Editor’s Note: with temperatures fluctuating wildly, (often by as much as 20 degrees on a day to day basis), it’s no wonder we’re seeing sniffles, sneezes and coughs that just won’t go away.  With the questions on every parent’s mind: “is this a cold? maybe the flu? should I take them to the doctor? do I need to keep them home from school an extra day”, it seemed the perfect time to re-share this Dr Joe classic from 2010 (Antibiotics…Not Always the Answer).  

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Skoloff currently holds positions as Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Medical Schools of Georgetown, George Washington and the University of Virginia and is a member of the American Medical Association, the American Board of Pediatrics and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Joe believes strongly in the combined power of parent and physician working together for the health of their children. He is an advocate for children everywhere and can be reached at www.twitter.com/drjoeskoloff. Dr Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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