All About Antibiotics, According to a Pediatrician & Mom

As a mom, I would love a magic cure to make my boys feel better instantly when they’re sick — one that would stop illness in its tracks and return my smiling child back to me (I am actually wishing for it this week while my baby is suffering from a cough and runny nose). In fact, many people think that antibiotics are magic pills and want to give them to their children every time they’re sick. But, as a pediatrician in a busy New York City pediatrics practice, I can tell you that when it comes to treating most childhood illnesses, antibiotics are not helpful at all. In most cases, there’s no quick fix; it’s all about making your child as comfortable as possible while you wait for the illness to pass on its own. Here, the common questions parents whose children I treat ask me about antibiotics, including the conditions that antibiotics will (and will not) treat, and why pediatricians won’t prescribe an antibiotic unless your child absolutely needs it. 

What are antibiotics, and what type of illnesses do they treat effectively?

Antibiotics encompass a broad group of medications that are used to treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat and pneumonia. 

What are some common childhood illnesses that cannot be cured by antibiotics?

Antibiotics do not work on viral infections, which are the cause of the majority of childhood ailments, including:

1. The common cold

Children can have fever, cough, and runny nose (even green or yellow nasal discharge) for up to 10 days — and still not need antibiotics. If your child has a fever for more than three days, persistent nasal discharge for more than 10 days, a cough lasting longer than three weeks, difficulty breathing, or hasn’t urinated in over six hours then it’s time to see the doctor. Otherwise, hang in there and focus on making your child as comfortable as possible; humidifiers and steam from the shower can help ease congestion and coughing.

2. Most sore throats

Typically, they’re caused by a virus. Strep throat, which requires antibiotics, is the exception; your pediatrician can diagnose strep with a throat swab.

3. Certain ear infections

Doctors now recognize that not all ear infections need to be treated, since some clear up on their own. If you think your child has an ear infection, consult your pediatrician for the best treatment plan.

4. Stomach bugs

The majority of illnesses that cause vomiting and diarrhea do not respond to antibiotics; in fact, antibiotics may make the problem worse. If your child has bloody poop, or prolonged diarrhea following travel, however, you should call your pediatrician right away.

Why are doctors so cautious about prescribing antibiotics these days?

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern among physicians. Because antibiotics have been over-used in the past, bacteria have been able to develop resistance to some antibiotics. This makes true bacterial infections more difficult to manage and requires stronger and stronger antibiotics to treat them. Additionally, antibiotics have side effects, such as stomach upset and diarrhea, and they may cause allergic reactions.

Why can’t my child take anti-viral medication for his cold?

Anti-viral medications don’t work for the common cold; they only target specific viral illnesses, such as herpes and influenza. Additionally, these medications can have side effects and should only be used when appropriate. But, I get it: As a mom, you want a fast fix for your child when he’s sick. I can’t tell you how many times I wished that I had found a cure to the common cold. Not only would I be a millionaire, but my kids would never be sick. Sadly, only time, fluids, and lots of TLC can make colds and most other viral illnesses better. 

More advice from Dr. Blanchard:

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