Parents cannot resist asking me if their child would benefit from an antibiotic when they are sick. This week, let me prescribe some advice about why we do and do not use antibiotics.

Antibiotics were designed to treat bacterial germs that get into the body – and they do so most effectively. Yet the majority of childhood illnesses are not due to bacterial germs but to viral germs or viruses, which don’t respond to antibiotics. Viruses and viral germs often go away in a few days with supportive care such as acetaminophen and good hydration.

In addition, we also know that if we overuse antibiotics when we strongly suspect a child has a virus, this can lead to the development of bacterial germs that become resistant to the antibiotics we commonly use. Antibiotic resistance could make it very difficult to treat these bacteria in the future, so we do as much as we can to reduce the development of those antibiotic-resistant germs.

So what do I recommend?

  1. Don’t insist on an antibiotic every time your child is ill. Colds, sore throats, stomach aches, flu symptoms and even ear infections are usually due to viruses and thus are not immediate reasons to ask for an antibiotic. If you are concerned about your child being sick, have them seen by a doctor who can best determine if an antibiotic is warranted. That doctor will give you suggestions to make your child comfortable until the virus passes.
  2. Use antibiotics as prescribed and only for as long as prescribed. If you have some left at the end of a course, do not save them for the next time your child is sick – that is an easy way to develop antibiotic resistance in your child.
  3. Never use someone else’s prescription.
  4. The best way to prevent getting an infection is not by taking antibiotics, but by good hand washing, being up to date on immunizations and keeping your child out of school when they are sick so viral or bacterial germs cannot spread.

Hopefully tips like this will be ones you cannot resist when it comes to knowing a little more about why and why not to use antibiotics.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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