Most seasonal illnesses like respiratory infections, the flu and the common cold are actually viral infections, for which antibiotics have no effect. In many cases, your child’s doctor will recommend treating the symptoms until the infection runs its course.
“It can be hard for parents because when our children are sick, we want to be able to do something for them,” says Dr. Katherine Andreeff, CHOC Children’s hospitalist. “In the case of viral illnesses, all we can do is support the body in its own process to fight the infection.”
Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, which can include urinary tract infections, blood stream infections and cellulitis, a common skin infection. Some infections – like pneumonia or ear infections – may be either viral or bacterial. Your child’s doctor may choose to prescribe antibiotics or wait it out to see if symptoms improve on their own.
If your child’s doctor prescribes an antibiotic, Dr. Andreeff recommends following these guidelines:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask the doctor what type of infection your child has and whether it is viral or bacterial, and discuss why the antibiotic is justified. “Antibiotics can change our body’s natural balance of good bacteria, so you only want to take them if they are necessary,” Dr. Andreeff says. “Repeated or lengthy courses of antibiotics may cause additional problems.”
- Take the antibiotic as directed. If it isn’t taken as frequently as prescribed or for the full duration of treatment, bacteria may survive and your child won’t be fully healed. It also can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria – a real problem as researchers attempt to stay a step ahead and formulate new medicines that will work.
- As with any medicine, beware of side effects. According to Dr. Andreeff, “It’s very important to only take medicine when the benefit of it outweighs the risk for side effects. Discuss this with your doctor and tell them about any reactions your child has.”
- Don’t underestimate viral infections. Even though they can’t be treated with antibiotics, they can be severe. Always consult a doctor when your child is showing signs of illness.
Bottom line: Antibiotics are powerful medicines that are essential in treating certain infections. The key is their appropriate prescription and use.