As useful as they are, antibiotics are not a cure-all for childhood illness. They are only effective against bacterial illnesses and have no effect on viral infections, such as the common cold or the flu. Unfortunately, widespread and inappropriate use of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, leading to global concern over the diminished power of antibiotics.
Many parents pressure their pediatricians for antibiotics to make their children feel better, even for viral infections that don’t respond to antibiotics. Also, many patients do not administer antibiotics correctly. They may stop giving them as soon as their child starts to feel better, skip doses when their child is being uncooperative, or take leftover antibiotics from an old prescription when they think their child might have an infection that hasn’t been diagnosed by a doctor.
When antibiotics are used haphazardly, the bacteria they are supposed to kill can grow stronger and build immunity to the antibiotics. If antibiotics are stopped before they should be, not all the bacteria are killed. The remaining bacteria can re-infect the child, but the infection will be harder to resolve.
After this cycle happens enough times, bacteria can gain resistance to a wide variety of common antibiotics. These stronger bacteria are spread from person to person just like any other bacteria through sneezing, coughing, or by being transferred to objects that infected people touch.
An example of antibiotic resistant bacteria is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is a common skin bacteria that has become resistant to the antibiotics (penicillins) that used to kill staph infections. MRSA evolved after years of unnecessary antibiotic use for viruses that do not respond to antibiotics. It is now a common cause of skin infections in otherwise healthy people and can sometimes be very difficult to eradicate.
Parents can help prevent antibiotic resistant bacteria by using antibiotics when necessary and by administering them exactly as they are prescribed. If you are disappointed by a doctor’s visit that does not result in antibiotics, it’s best to directly communicate those concerns to your physician so you can feel confident that you are doing the right thing for your child.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, May 2020
- The number of antibiotic resistant bacteria are growing.
- If you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, or use them incorrectly, you may contribute to more resistant bacteria developing.
- Antibiotic resistant bacteria can cause more serious illness and even death.
- Take antibiotics exactly as your doctor says to, for as long as recommended by them.