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Antibiotics are effective in fighting bacterial infections, but their overuse has created a problem called antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics are used too often, bacteria can become harder to kill. Antibiotic resistance makes treatment less effective, and stronger or different antibiotics necessary. Parents worry about giving children antibiotics over concerns about antibiotic resistance as well as the common side effects. However, when children develop bacterial infections, antibiotics are a necessary, safe, and effective treatment.

What Should Parents Know About Antibiotic Use in Children?

Doctors prescribe specific antibiotics for specific infections, and each prescribed dosage is tailored to the child. Don’t ever give a child antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else, even a sibling. In addition, your child should always finish any antibiotic prescriptions completely — even if symptoms have gone away and they are feeling better. Otherwise, the infection may not be truly destroyed. When symptoms eventually return, the doctor may have to order a new course of antibiotics, leading to a delay in improvement, the risk of more side effects, and an increased chance of the child developing antibiotic resistance.

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When Are Antibiotics Necessary for Children?

Many childhood illnesses are caused by viruses, and antibiotics do not help to kill viruses. However, antibiotics can fight bacterial infections, and they may prevent the infection from worsening. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), while antibiotics will not help treat a cold or a minor earache, they are necessary to treat strep throat or a bacterial ear infection. Left untreated, strep throat can lead to long-term health problems or, in rare cases, be fatal, and ear infections could spread to the brain.

Doctors also may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infected wound. However, applying an antibiotic cream when dressing the wound can help prevent infection.

Is It Safe For Children to Use Antibiotics?

When used correctly under the care of a doctor, antibiotics are safe for children. Possible side effects include nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, or skin rashes, according to the AAP. While uncommon, allergic reactions to antibiotics also can occur. If a child has a fast-spreading rash or trouble breathing, parents should contact their pediatrician immediately.

What Questions Should You Ask Your Doctor?

If you are worried about giving your child an antibiotic, or aren’t clear on why it’s needed, here are some questions to ask the doctor:

Have you confirmed the presence of bacteria?

First, make sure your doctor has confirmed the presence of bacteria by testing blood, urine, or samples of other bodily fluids. This will help prevent unnecessary antibiotic use.

How long and how frequently will my child need to take antibiotics?

Discuss how long your child will be taking the antibiotics, as well as how many times per day. Stopping antibiotics early can cause the infection to remain.

What side effects can we expect?

Ask your doctor what side effects to expect with antibiotic use, especially serious reactions such as breathing issues, uncontrolled vomiting, or diarrhea. Some side effects may be mild while others could be signs of an allergic reaction.

While it’s always worrisome when children are ill, it’s essential to work with your child’s pediatrician to get proper care and treatment. Discuss any concerns you have about antibiotic use with your child’s doctor, only give the medicines prescribed to your child, and be sure to give the antibiotic until all the medicine is taken.

Guidelines for Antibiotic Use. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

How Do Antibiotics Work? American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

Antibiotic Prescriptions for Children: 10 Common Questions Answered. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

Wound Infection. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

The History of Antibiotics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

Choosing Wisely: Questions Parents Should Ask About Their Hospitalized Child's Antibiotics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.