The 411 on Antibiotics

There are few things worse than seeing your child struggle with being sick. You may want to ask your pediatrician to prescribe antibiotics, but antibiotics are not always the safest or most effective treatment for an illness. In fact, the majority of infections can’t be treated by antibiotics.

There are two major types of germs that can make people sick: bacteria and viruses. Antibiotics are an effective treatment against illnesses caused by bacteria. That’s great news for people who are sick with a bacterial infection. The bad news is that most infections—including respiratory illnesses—are caused by viruses, and viruses can’t be treated with antibiotics.

While antibiotics can be helpful medicines, giving your child antibiotics when they aren’t needed can actually be harmful. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises doctors against prescribing antibiotics for common childhood ailments such as colds, coughs and sore throats that are not caused by strep.

The problem with overprescribing antibiotics

As antibiotics are working to kill off the bacteria in our bodies that make us sick, they also simultaneously kill the good bacteria that keep us healthy. The misuse of antibiotics can result in an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, leading to more serious illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls antibiotic resistance “one of the world’s most pressing health problems.” It’s estimated that more than 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed for kids aren’t necessary. As a result of the overuse of antibiotics:

  • Bacteria that were once highly treatable with antibiotics have become more and more resistant, making it harder to treat illnesses such as pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis and skin infections.
  • New drug-resistant “superbugs” have emerged that don’t respond to many commonly prescribed antibiotics.

When does my child need antibiotics?

Your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics for your child if:

  • He is diagnosed with a bacterial form of pneumonia or whooping cough.
  • Symptoms of a sinus or respiratory infection get better within 10 days and then get worse again.
  • He has strep throat confirmed by a test or throat culture.
  • He has a urinary tract infection.

How to safely give your child antibiotics

If your doctor diagnoses a bacterial infection and prescribes antibiotics, keep these things in mind:

  • The medicines take one to two days to work.
  • Antibiotics can only treat a bacterial infection if taken for the full amount of time prescribed by the doctor.
  • Never save antibiotics or give your child antibiotics that were prescribed for another family member.
  • Follow your pediatrician’s instructions and give your child antibiotics exactly as they’re prescribed.

This content has been clinically reviewed by Preeti Jaggi, MD.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.