Let's Be Smart About Antibiotics


feverLast week my 7-month-old daughter had her first illness. It started with a fever. She wasn’t really interested in solid food, but I nursed her as often as she liked. She seemed sleepy, but woke up often and had to be rocked to sleep again and again.

Her symptoms were, I believe, the flu. I had it myself within a few days, as did one of my sons. But her symptoms could also have been signs of an ear infection, which can be treated with antibiotics. And, in fact, other illnesses have symptoms similar to those that can be treated by antibiotics: a cold could turn into a severe sinus infection, a sore throat might actually be Strep.

As a parent I understand the impulse to encourage my child to get better as quickly as possible. Nothing was more sad and pathetic than the way my daughter whimpered through her illness last week, and oh, how I would have loved to give her a magic dose of something to help her back to being our happy, smiley baby again. However, I also know that it is also incredibly important that in our rush to do “whatever it takes” to make our children healthy again, we don’t unintentionally harm them, or society as a whole, which is exactly what we do when we ask our doctors for antibiotics that aren’t warranted.

In fact, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has been called “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems,” according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Antibiotics kill bacteria, but they are often prescribed to treat illnesses that are caused not by bacteria, but by viruses, because parents insist that their doctor’s give them something anything  to help their children, even if that “something” may do more harm than good in the long term. Overusing antibiotics makes them less effective when they are actually needed, as in the case of some ear infections, or Strep throat, or Staph infections or other highly infected skin wounds. As antibiotics become less effective, researchers must work harder and dig deeper to find effective treatments for these infections. There is a very real fear that the world will run out of antibiotics if they continue to be overprescribed.

Overusing antibiotics can be personally damaging as well. Antibiotics kill all kinds of bacteria, both good and bad. When good bacteria in the gut are killed, they can no longer fight against other infections, opening up the gut, and the body to more illnesses, like the deadly C. diff bacteria. A recent article in The New Yorker says there is hope that eventually probiotics may be prescribed after a round of antibiotics have been completed to restore the good bacteria and maintain optimal gut health, but that time may still be years away.

So rather than rush to the doctor for a prescription if a child has any illness that looks like it could possibly be treated with an antibiotic, remember to have the doctor rule out any other possible causes before jumping for the antibiotic. Unless the child really needs the antibiotic, it’s possible that giving it to him could do more harm than good, both to the child and to the world.

Here’s a quiz from the CDC to test your antibiotic knowledge.