The most common cause of illness in a child is infection. It can cause a number of symptoms including fever, earache, runny nose, sore throat, cough, vomiting and diarrhea. Antibiotics are a type of drug used to fight infections. In recent years, the medical community has begun to recognize the consequences of over prescribing these medications. Today, it is very important for everyone to understand the appropriate use of these valuable drugs.

What do antibiotics do?

There are two important types of infections: viral and bacterial. Both of these infections have similar symptoms, but their treatments are very different. Antibiotics are only used for bacterial infections, and it takes a thorough medical exam to determine the cause of the infection. Bacteria have a protective cover that makes it difficult for the body's immune system to kill them. Antibiotics prevent the bacteria from making this protective layer, so the immune system can destroy them. Viruses do not have this same cover, so antibiotics do not affect them. The body will fight off most viruses on its own in a few days.

Why not treat all infections with antibiotics…just in case?

Scientists have discovered that bacteria are very clever organisms. They have the ability to change themselves to avoid the effect of antibiotics. This is called "resistance." Every time someone uses antibiotics, it gives the bacteria a chance to figure out how to avoid it. The more we use antibiotics unnecessarily, the more resistant strains emerge. Today, there are numerous strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and can cause life threatening infections.

Unnecessary use of antibiotics also has side effects that should be avoided. Antibiotics can destroy "good bacteria" that lives in the body. When good bacteria are destroyed, your child could get diarrhea, yeast infections, or other unpleasant complications.

It is important to remember that bacterial and viral infections can look very similar. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for head congestion one time, but not another time. A careful doctor will protect your child from taking antibiotics unnecessarily.