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Get Smart About Antibiotics

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

It really is the time of year when “everyone” is getting sick, and fortunately most of these illnesses are due to common viruses that circulate during the Fall and Winter months.

I am already seeing so many parents bringing their young children with recurrent coughs and congestion and the strains of “can’t we just have an antibiotic” are being heard throughout the office. There isn’t a parent who doesn’t want to try and make their sick child better faster but antibiotics are usually not the answer.

Antibiotics only work for infections that are caused by certain bacteria.  Unfortunately, antibiotics do not treat viruses!!  Viruses cause most of the seasonal cough, cold, congestion and flu viruses that we see throughout the year. These viruses do seem to be more prevalent in the Fall and Winter months as we all gather together in close quarters for holidays and to escape the cold days outside.

Viruses are easily spread from person to person, typically via droplets that are aerosolized when a person coughs or sneezes. The other sneaky thing about viruses is that the virus may be shed by a person before they even feel sick. In other words, the person that is sitting next to you at church, or to your child at school may be innocently spreading a virus 12-24 hours before they even begin to feel badly. Knowing that, it is hard to point a finger at who “got your child sick” as we all come into contact with germs throughout the day.

Many viral infections, such as a cold, may have symptoms that last for up to 2 weeks. This is not a “quick fix” type of illness. In fact,  the best medicine for a cold , viral sore throat or the flu is the age old fluids, rest, fever reducer and “tincture of time” .  An antibiotic given inappropriately may actually do more harm than good. By taking an antibiotic when they are not needed you may increase the risk of getting an infection later that is resistant to typical antibiotic treatment.  As you probably already have heard, antibiotic resistance is on the rise, and one reason may be the overuse of antibiotics when they are not needed.

Taking an antibiotic is appropriate when needed for a bacterial sore throat, such as strep throat (which is documented by a strep test), or for ear infections in young children.  When your doctor prescribes an antibiotic you want to take it exactly as directed and always finish the entire prescription.  Even if your child is feeling better several days after starting an antibiotic finish the medication or the infection may return.

Lastly, if you have any unused antibiotic throw it away and never save it for another use. Do not give an antibiotic for one child to another child in the family, as believe it or not, it is fairly common for one child to have a strep throat while a sibling may have a viral upper respiratory infection that does not need to be treated with an antibiotic.  Go figure, not everyone in the family gets the same illness at the same time.

I tell my patients it is a good thing to “brag” that your child has never been on an antibiotic, almost like getting that straight A report card.  And remember, each viral illness is actually helping to make your child stronger by building antibody for future illness. Small victories with each cold!

That’s your daily dose for today. We’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue!

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