Getting Smart About Antibiotics

by Dr. Laura Jana March 21, 2014

Two separate conversations this past week compelled me to share my thoughts on the smart use of antibiotics, an important parenting topic that is often overlooked.

The first conversation took place when I managed to catch up with a pediatrician colleague on the phone. The reason I say “managed to” is because in the world of pediatrics, this time of year is like tax season for accountants. Viral illnesses like influenza, rotavirus and RSV spread rapidly, and pediatricians brace themselves to care for a significantly increased number of sick children. My pediatrician friend barely had time to talk, she was so busy doing whatever she could to make the sick kids in her waiting room (and their concerned parents) feel better. 

The second conversation was with a friend whose toddler had been cranky for several days with familiar symptoms: fever, runny nose and a cough - which lead to trouble eating and sleeping (for everyone involved). She was relieved to be leaving her pediatrician’s office armed with a prescription for antibiotics to “treat the fluid” in her toddler’s ear. The takeaway, as my friend understood it, was that this darn illness had gone on long enough and it was time to administer antibiotics and make everything better. I understood her relief, but I cringed at the same time, and this is why: 

Every parent wants his/her sick child to get better, and every pediatrician wants to do whatever he/she can to make that happen. So what’s the problem? Antibiotics seem like the perfect solution. But much of what plagues us this time of year – from the fevers, coughs and colds to the sore throats, sniffles and sneezes – is actually caused by viruses. Antibiotics don’t treat viruses. That’s right, as much as I hate to be the bearer of disappointing news, antibiotics do nothing to stop viruses or the illness they cause. Bacteria and viruses are very different germs, and antibiotics are only capable of fighting bacteria.

The prescription my friend had was not likely to work. In her case, fluid discovered in the ear during the course of a viral illness does not prove the presence of a bacterial infection any more than green mucus or a sore throat would. But even more important than saving my friend an unnecessary trip to the drug store, I hope to prevent the overuse of these potentially life-saving drugs. Not only are there potential risks associated with taking any prescription drug – antibiotics included – but there is a very real potential for the overuse of antibiotics to render them ineffective. I’ll spare you the pharmacologic details, but regardless of whether you’re a parent, pediatrician, or infectious disease specialist, antibiotic resistance should concern you.

Over the past century, antibiotics have afforded us the ability to successfully treat many bacterial illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis, sinusitis, skin infections, strep throat and bacterial ear infections. Having antibiotics in our medical arsenal is not something we should take for granted. For more information to help you get smart about antibiotics, check out the Center for Disease Control’s Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work campaign, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Do you have any questions about antibiotics? Ask me in the comments section below!

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Dr Jana,

Awesome advice to parents about appropriate antibiotic use. Thanks for bringing forward this very important subject !!

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