Get smart about antibiotics

Two million people this year will come down with an infection that antibiotics can’t fight. Thousands of those people will die from those infections.

It’s a growing problem. In fact, a rise in cases of scarlet fever recently hit Great Britain and Asia and doctors discovered this once easily treatable deadly disease had now developed a strain that was resistant to many forms of antibiotics. It’s one of the many reasons why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started a “Get Smart about Antibiotics” week every November — to raise awareness of the issue.

A key part of these efforts include limiting when a child takes antibiotics. Studies show that 11 million prescriptions for antibiotics written every year for children may be unnecessary. Researchers say there are many reasons for the excess prescriptions. In some cases, it’s because there are few tools to distinguish between a viral or bacterial infection, so antibiotics are a default treatment. It could also be because parents ask for antibiotics.

It’s important to know when to just say no to antibiotics. Many of the illnesses a child will encounter don’t need them. “Viruses will not respond to antibiotics,” says Sherman Alter, MD, director of the infectious disease department at Dayton Children’s Hospital. “Viruses cause colds, the flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections. A child’s immune system is the only thing that can defeat a virus.”

Parents can help by providing supportive care. Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. You can use a cool-mist humidifier to help relieve congestion. If your child is old enough, you can provide over-the-counter remedies to relieve some symptoms.

The only time your child needs an antibiotic is when he or she is battling harmful bacteria. “Bacteria can cause illnesses like whooping cough, strep throat or a urinary tract infection,” explains Dr. Alter. “In that case, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to kill these living organisms. However, it is also important that your doctor prescribe the lowest dose that will be effective on that bacteria to keep it from developing resistance to the drug.”

Parents can also help by making sure children are up to date on their vaccinations. Sometimes children who get the flu also develop other infections, such as an ear infection, which may require antibiotic treatment. Preventing the flu might have prevented this complication and the need for antibiotics.

Make sure you have the conversation with your child’s doctor about whether antibiotics are truly necessary. That way you can find the best remedy now and potentially protect your child from more serious illness later on.

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This look at a children’s health or safety issue comes from Dayton Children’s Hospital. Email: