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What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are powerful drugs used to treat certain illnesses. However, antibiotics do not cure everything, and unnecessary antibiotics can even be harmful.

There are two main types of germs that cause most infections. These are viruses and bacteria.

Viruses cause:

  • All colds and flu
  • Runny noses
  • Most coughs and bronchitis
  • Most sore throats

Antibiotics cannot kill viruses or help you feel better when you have a virus.

Bacteria cause:

  • Most ear infections
  • Some sinus infections
  • Strep throat
  • Urinary tract infections

Antibiotics do kill specific bacteria.

Some viruses cause symptoms that resemble bacterial infections, and some bacteria can cause symptoms that resemble viral infections. Your child's doctor can determine what type of illness your child has and recommend the proper type of treatment.

What are resistant bacteria?

Each time you take an antibiotic, bacteria are killed. Sometimes, bacteria-causing infections are already resistant to prescribed antibiotics. Bacteria may also become resistant during treatment of an infection. Resistant bacteria do not respond to the antibiotics and continue to cause infection. A common misconception is that a person's body becomes resistant to specific drugs. However, it is the bacteria, not people, that become resistant to the drugs.

Each time you take or give your child an antibiotic unnecessarily or improperly, you increase the chance of developing drug-resistant bacteria. Therefore, it is critically important to take antibiotics only when necessary. Because of these resistant bacteria, some diseases that used to be easy to treat are now becoming nearly impossible to treat.

Bacteria can develop resistance to certain medications.

  • Drug resistance happens when bacteria develop ways to survive the use of medications meant to kill or weaken them.
  • If a germ becomes resistant to many drugs, treating the infections can become difficult or even impossible.
  • Someone with an infection that is resistant to a certain medication can pass that resistant infection to another person. In this way, a hard-to-treat illness can be spread from person to person. In some cases, the illness can lead to serious disability or even death.
  • Resistance can occur if the bacterial infection is only partially treated. To prevent this, it is important to finish taking the entire prescription of antibiotics as instructed.
Picture of a physician examining a young boy

When are antibiotics needed?

This complicated question, which should be answered by your child's doctor, depends on the specific diagnosis. For example, there are several types of ear infections--most need antibiotics, but some do not. Most cases of sore throat are caused by viruses. One kind, strep throat, diagnosed by a laboratory test, requires antibiotics.

Common viral infections, like coughs or a cold, can sometimes become complicated and a bacterial infection can develop. However, treating viral infections with antibiotics in order to prevent bacterial infections is not recommended because of the risk of producing bacterial resistance.

  • Remember that antibiotics do not work against colds and flu, and that unnecessary antibiotics can be harmful.
  • Consult your child's pediatrician about antibiotics and find out about the differences between viruses and bacteria, and when antibiotics should and should not be used.
  • If your child does receive an antibiotic, be sure to give it exactly as prescribed to decrease the development of resistant bacteria. Have your child finish the entire prescription, don't stop when the symptoms of infection go away.
  • Never save the left over antibiotics to use "just in case." This practice can also lead to bacterial resistance.
  • Do not share your antibiotics with someone else or take an antibiotic that was prescribed for someone else. 
  • Antibiotic resistance is particularly dangerous for children, but it can occur in adults, as well.

Remember that taking antibiotics appropriately and making sure your child receives the proper immunizations will help prevent having to take more dangerous and more costly medications. Consult your child's doctor for more information.

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