Does my child need antibiotics?

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While we all want to help our children recover quickly when sick, antibiotics are not always the answer, explains Evelyn Lewin, a GP and mum of three.

As a doctor, I've seen many, many kids with viral illnesses. In fact, each year children can get up to six to 12 upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds, sore throat and laryngitis.

After taking a history and examining a child with a viral illness, I explain my findings to the parents. I outline the measures I think will help their child feel better.

It's usually around this point that parents ask me for a script for antibiotics.

And this is when I explain that antibiotics don't work against viral infections.

It seems that most people know that antibiotics can't kill viral infections, but many still think that antibiotics can help "in some way".

The truth is that if your child has a viral illness, antibiotics won't help at all. They won't help the body get rid of the illness. Nor will they make your child feel any better or recover any quicker.

Not only do they not help, taking antibiotics when not needed can cause further problems.

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Firstly, antibiotics themselves come with the risk of side effects, one of the most common being gastrointestinal upset (things like diarrhoea, a sore tummy, nausea and/or vomiting). Other, less common side effects are also possible.

Understandably, your doctor doesn't want your child to experience side effects from a medication she doesn't need.

But it's not only that: taking antibiotics unnecessarily can also lead to antibiotic resistance. This is when the bacteria we are trying to kill become resistant to the antibiotic we are using. It means that the antibiotic we would normally use against a certain bacteria no longer works against the bug it is trying to kill.

The result is that we end up needing stronger and stronger antibiotics to kill the same bug.

This can become a problem for your child. If she uses antibiotics unnecessarily, she may no longer get the same effect from them when she really needs them.

It can also be a problem for other people. The more we use antibiotics when not needed, the more we - as a community - become resistant to them.

Unfortunately, antibiotic resistance is a real concern that affects people nowadays, especially those with low immunity.

The worrying concern is what happens if we become so resistant to antibiotics that we run out of effective medication to treat bacterial illnesses altogether?

When I explain these kinds of concerns to parents they agree they don't want to contribute to these problems. But they remain concerned that their child's illness isn't getting better and that antibiotics "might help". ("So can we please try them?" they ask.)

I understand this line of reasoning. If your child has been unwell for a while, it might feel like it's 'time' to give antibiotics a try. At other times, when your child is really unwell, people think this means the illness is 'bad enough' to be bacterial. But it doesn't work like that.

Viral illnesses, such as colds, can drag on for around 10 days; a cough can continue for weeks after that. While this seems like 'a long time', it's simply the nature of the illness.

Yes, viral illnesses can be severe and your child can be very sick from them. But even if your child is very unwell, or if she has been unwell for 'a long time', if her illness is viral, antibiotics just won't help.

To help your child feel better when she has one of those illnesses, try to ensure she rests, keeps her fluids up, and takes pain medication if needed (say, for a sore throat). Your GP can give more advice depending on the type of illness your child has.

Of course, it's still important to take your child back to her doctor if you're worried about her symptoms. It's possible to develop a bacterial infection at the same time as a viral illness, so if you're concerned that your child's symptoms have changed, or if they seem very severe, she should see a doctor.

You should also see a doctor if your child develops any concerning symptoms, such as drowsiness, skin rash or difficulty breathing.

When needed, antibiotics can be incredibly valuable to your child's recovery. The important thing to remember is to only use them at those times.

NPS Medicinewise ask parents take a pledge to help tackle antibiotic resistance. The pledge states the following:

  • I will not ask for antibiotics for colds and the flu as they have no effect on viruses
  • I understand that antibiotics will not help me recover faster from a viral infection
  • I will only take antibiotics in the way they have been prescribed
  • I understand that it is possible to pass on antibiotic resistant bacteria to others
  • I will make a greater effort to prevent the spread of germs by practising good hygiene.

Brought to you by NPS Medicinewise.