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Antibiotic Overload? When and When Not to Put Your Child on Antibiotics.

Teresa Shaw |13, October 2008


Antibiotic Overload? When and When Not to Put Your Child on Antibiotics.

Sniffles and sneezes, fevers, aches and chills—cold and flu season has arrived. While the colder weather doesn't actually cause colds, theories suggest that, due to the cold, people gather in closer proximity in indoor areas and, therefore, spread germs more easily than in the warmer months.

When cold and flu season strikes, it's important to know how to treat the illnesses. Not all illnesses are the same, nor can they be treated equally. Antibiotics, in particular, are not a fix-all for every illness or infection. Following is an explanation of when antibiotics should and should not be used.

Causes of Infections

Infections are generally caused by two main types of germs: bacteria and viruses.

Bacteria are organisms that can be found almost anywhere in the body, with the exception of normally sterile sites such as the blood stream and spinal fluid. There are a few bacteria, known as pathogens, that can cause diseases in humans, animals, and plants.

Viruses are organisms that cause disease by invading healthy host cells in the body. As virus particles multiply, the host cells burst, allowing the viruses to infect other cells.

Your child's doctor can determine whether your child has an illness caused by bacteria or a virus, and can decide whether the appropriate treatment requires antibiotics.

When to Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics are used to treat illnesses caused by bacteria. While your child's pediatrician is the best judge for when antibiotics should be prescribed, the following are generally treated with antibiotics.

  • Ear and sinus infections. There are several types of ear infections and sinus infections; many need antibiotics, but some do not. Antibiotics are generally needed in the cases of long-lasting or severe infections.
  • Strep throat. A major type of sore throat, strep throat requires antibiotic treatment. A lab test is completed in order to properly diagnose strep throat.

It is important to note that viral infections have the potential to turn into bacterial infections. However, using antibiotics to treat viral infections will not prevent bacterial infections; in fact, it may trigger infections with resistant bacteria. Tell your child's pediatrician if he or she seems to get sicker or if the illness lasts for a long time in order to ensure proper treatment.

When Not to Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics do not work on viruses. Therefore, they should not be taken in cases of:

  • Cold or flu
  • Cough or bronchitis
  • Sore throat (not strep throat)
  • Runny nose

In fact, taking antibiotics for a viral infection increases the risk of antibiotic resistance, which has been referred to as one of the most pressing health problems today. There are more antibiotic-resistant bacteria today than ever before, nearly all of which are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics. Each time a person ingests antibiotics, they are killing sensitive bacteria, while other, resistant germs are left behind and multiply in numbers. The best way to control this is to decrease the inappropriate use of antibiotics. Be sure to talk to your child's pediatrician to ensure that any antibiotics prescribed for him or her are truly necessary.

Parents should also refrain from demanding that their child be given antibiotics to treat a cold or cough, runny nose, or sore throat. Antibiotics should be used only to treat bacterial infections. If you or your child have a cold or the flu, treat the illness by drinking plenty of fluids, using a cool-mist vaporizer and/or a saline nasal spray, and try ice chips or lozenges (for older children and adults) for relief.


Many Americans falsely believe in the power of antibiotics so much that many patients and parents expect a prescription for antibiotics, no matter what ails them. Doctors sometimes comply, due to pressure from patients and an unwillingness to spend the time explaining why the antibiotics might not be the answer. What's more, when the diagnosis is uncertain, many doctors will rely on antibiotics to get rid of the infection, even when the cause is not certain to be bacterial.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Teresa Shaw is a professional editor and freelance writer with a degree in English and journalism. She writes about motherhood, travel, and cooking, among other topics, for a variety of print and online markets. She enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter, two cats, and dog.

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Showing 1 - 6 out of 6 Comments
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sonja Sep 16, 2012 07:29:57 AM ET

Nice and clear info! Thanx . My question: infant of 11mths got impetigo, 1st layer of skin only- the crustie one , so not severe or had become more , after 2wks increased in seize, I sterted to apply Bacteran topical cream and kept it closed, it didn't become bigger, but it stayed the same for 2wks, then I decided to go Dr, and received Betamox antibiotic. Would the use of antibiotics here, be really necessary to heal the blister or will it Harm the 'overall body' of my baby boy more? Just more or less, I don't expect u to justify anything- just your opion would be nice....

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charm Feb 7, 2011 02:45:47 PM ET

Glad to have read this page...some people here suggests that antibiotic is a sure cure of fever, flu... i know it isnt i have t show them this page because this is already a solid proof of what antibiotic does in our body

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Lori Oct 27, 2010 02:35:00 PM ET

Antibiotics for a fever ONLY if your peditrician has diagnosed an underlying illness that warrants it. In fact, if it's a low-grade fever I would suggest no Tylenol... just monitor and give fluids. The body's immune system is keyed to work more effectively at higher temperatures... that's why we get fevers in the first place. Once it gets around 101 with a child, I'd knock it down with Tylenol or another fever-reducing med.

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TAKISHA Jul 15, 2010 12:11:02 AM ET


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Lilou Oct 6, 2009 08:14:16 PM ET

So what to do in case of fever? Antibiotics or not?

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Liz Oct 13, 2008 12:36:02 PM ET

I agree. I find it very annoying when our family doctor puts my girls on antibiotics even when it's not needed. Sometimes, the doctor will put both of my children on antibiotics even if just one needs them. The reason? "Because she will most likely need them in a day or two". Now, if the test does not prove the need for antibiotics, I decline the meds.

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