Antibiotic Resistance: What Parents Need to Know About Overuse

Runny nose, cough and congestion are very common in the winter and spring. It happens every year. Antibiotics are life-saving drugs that kill some types of germs (bacteria), but also have side effects and can stop working for some bacteria if they are overused in either one person or in a community.

Why do some children need antibiotics and others don’t?

It is important to know that there are two kinds of germs: viruses (such as that which causes the common cold) and bacteria. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, not viral illnesses. Viral illnesses DO NOT respond to antibiotics.

This means that antibiotics are not needed for:

  • colds or flu
  • most coughs and bronchitis
  • sore throats not caused by strep
  • runny noses or most ear aches

Antibiotics are not always the answer.

How many viruses cause cold symptoms?

More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold, and infections can spread from person to person through the air and close personal contact. Every year, adults have an average of two to three colds, and children have even more, especially if they attend daycare. Rhinovirus is the most common type of virus that causes colds. Antibiotics cannot cure the common cold.

What are some common cold symptoms?

When germs that cause colds first infect the nose, the nose makes clear mucus. This helps wash the germs from the nose and sinuses. After two or three days, mucus may change to a white, yellow, or green color. This is normal and does not mean you or your child needs antibiotics. Other signs and symptoms of the common cold can include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus dripping down your throat)
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches

These symptoms usually peak within two to three days but can last for up to 10 to 14 days.

Are there bad things that can happen if my child uses antibiotics?

Antibiotics can make bacteria more resistant, making future infections harder to treat. Antibiotics also have other side effects, like diarrhea, rashes, allergic reactions and yeast infections. Antibiotics are lifesaving medications, but we need to use them wisely and only when needed. Trained clinicians decide if antibiotics are needed based on clinical symptoms.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • Ask your doctor specifically why they feel your child does or does not need antibiotics. If your doctor believes that your child will not be helped by antibiotics, they probably have a good reason. Never pressure your doctor for antibiotics, instead ask for the best treatment for your child’s illness.
  • Ask if watchful waiting is right for your child. Some bacterial infections, like mild sinus and ear infections, can get better without antibiotics. Your doctor may recommend watchful waiting, meaning waiting a few days to see if your child gets better before deciding to prescribe antibiotics.
  • Ask about side effects. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects of antibiotics.
  • Throw leftover antibiotics away. Never save antibiotics for future illnesses, take antibiotics prescribed for others, or share antibiotics with others. Talk to your pharmacist about how to dispose of leftover antibiotics.

 For more information on antibiotic use, click here or listen to our PediaCast.

Preeti Jaggi, MD
Dr. Preeti Jaggi is the Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University. Her research interests include decreasing use of un-necessary antibiotics in children, especially for non-hospitalized children.

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