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Antibiotics are crucial in treating many conditions but giving them to kids when they’re unnecessary can do more harm than good. Cara Dolan/Stocksy
  • Experts share why giving your kids antibiotics when they’re not needed is harmful.
  • Potential side effects and damage to healthy gut bacteria are all negative effects of using antibiotics unnecessarily.
  • The overuse of antibiotics is contributing to germs gaining the ability to defeat them.

Having a sick child is worrisome and doing everything you can to help them feel better and recover is a top priority as a caregiver.

However, oftentimes, parents think that antibiotics will cure all when in fact, they won’t.

“Antibiotics are only useful against bacteria that are making us sick, but for the majority of kids, viruses are the culprit,” Dr. Mark Brockman, a pediatrician at Norton Children’s in Louisville, Kentucky, told Healthline. “Antibiotics do not work against viruses because of the specific way antibiotics work against bacteria.”

While pediatricians sometimes prescribe antibiotics before knowing the true source of an illness, for reasons such as the age of the child or the severity of their symptoms, Brockman said for the majority of cases, doing so is inappropriate.

“Also, starting antibiotics to prevent a bacterial infection is only warranted in very rare instances, so in an otherwise healthy child who presents with a likely viral infection, antibiotics should not be used,” he said.

He noted that a common misconception among the public is that the color of mucus (i.e., dark green boogers) indicates a bacterial infection. Additionally, he said certain bacteria require certain antibiotics, but not all antibiotics work on every type of bacteria.

To determine if your child has an infection that is bacterial and can benefit from an antibiotic, healthcare providers may use various methods, such as a throat swab to diagnose strep throat or a urine culture to detect a urinary tract infection.

“Oftentimes, less severe bacterial infections can resolve without any treatment, as well. Therefore, it is often recommended to wait at least 24 to 48 hours to see if the child’s symptoms worsen or improve on their own,” Kavita Desai, PharmD, women’s health and disease prevention specialist, told Healthline.

If symptoms worsen or are severe and worrisome, and the healthcare professional has determined that the infection is bacterial, antibiotics may be considered, she added.

Although antibiotics are crucial in treating many conditions, Brockman said sometimes they can do more harm than good.

“As with any medicine there are side effects to antibiotics use. Some antibiotics can have unintentional consequences, such as nausea or diarrhea. Other more serious outcomes such as anaphylaxis or allergic reaction are possible,” he said.

Inappropriate use or overuse of antibiotics can also damage the gut microbiome and make way for more invasive and dangerous bacteria or fungi to set up an infection.

“Antibiotics will not only target the harmful bacteria leading to infection but can also kill off the healthy bacteria in the intestine that support proper digestion and maintain overall health,” said Desai.

When the body is lacking healthy bacteria, life threatening bacteria, such as C. difficile (C.diff), which affects the gut and colon, can grow rapidly and lead to death.

So was the case for Christian Lillis’ mom, Peggy.

In 2010, she was prescribed an antibiotic after having dental work done as a way to preempt an infection possibly occurring. A few days after beginning the antibiotic, she started having diarrhea that brought her to the hospital.

There, she was diagnosed with C.diff and sepsis, a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body damages its own tissues as it tries to fight infection. Ironically, the only way to treat C.diff and sepsis is with antibiotics, which Peggy was given. However, she died from septic shock just 6 days after visiting the dentist.

“My mother was given an antibiotic for an infection she didn’t have, which gave her an infection that killed her, and that infection needed antibiotics to treat it,” Lillis told Healthline.

After the death of his mom, Lillis and his brother established the Peggy Lillis Foundation (PLF) to educate the public about C.diff. Part of their efforts include providing information about antibiotic use.

“Our mother was in the hospital going into septic shock before we ever heard the term C.diff. We had no ability to engage in any sort of prevention because we didn’t know that this disease existed, let alone that it was primarily precipitated by the use of an antibiotic,” said Lillis.

In 2019, his foundation launched the campaign See C.diff to raise awareness of the disease and spread knowledge regarding why using antibiotics when not necessary can be harmful.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes antibiotic resistance as occurring when bacteria and fungi change in such a way that they gain the ability to defeat the antibiotics designed to kill them.

Brockman said the development of bacterial resistance is the biggest problem with using antibiotics inappropriately.

“This means other stronger antibiotics have to be used, thus causing the potential for resistance to those antibiotics as well. This usually requires hospitalization, and in some cases, patients die from overwhelming infections,” he said.

Over time, what were once common, easily managed infections could ultimately become serious and potentially untreatable, added Desai.

“This has the compounded effect of further spreading these contagious infections into the greater community as an improperly treated infection becomes widespread within families or groups [such as] schools, community centers, and daycares,” she said.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that new antibiotic development is hard to achieve, and there is a potential for bacteria to outpace the development, “so it is very important to only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary,” said Brockman.

When your child is sick, the following might help to discuss the use of antibiotics:

  • Keeping detailed records of when symptoms began and how they progressed. “We need to know as much about their children’s symptoms as possible to help create the most appropriate care plan possible. This also allows us to provide anticipatory guidance to the parent,” said Brockman.
  • If the doctor believes that the infection is not bacterial, then Desai said it’s okay to let them know that you prefer to wait for culture results to return or to wait 24 to 48 hours to see if the symptoms begin to resolve on their own before commencing antibiotic treatment.
  • Ask your child’s healthcare professional which antibiotic might be best for their infection. Desai said some antibiotics treat very specific bacteria while others are broad-spectrum and can treat a wider variety of bacteria. “It is always best to choose an antibiotic with the narrowest spectrum to reduce the risk of worsening the issues of antibiotic resistance,” she said.