When Antibiotics are Needed, and the Risks of Taking Them When They're Not

Dr. Lyndsey Garbi
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A lot of parents ask me about antibiotics when their kids are sick. There are certain infections that require antibiotics, but actually, the majority of cases do not require antibiotics. In fact, in most cases antibiotics will not do anything to make a child feel better and can do more harm than good. Here is why.There are several different types of infections. The major categories of infections are:

  1. Bacterial - one you may know is called Group A Streptococcus, which causes strep throat. Another one is Staphylococcus aureus (sometimes referred to in short as “Staph”) which is one of the causes of impetigo.
  2. Viral - some viruses you probably are familiar with are coxsackie, which is part of a bigger family of viruses called enterovirus, that can also cause the common cold. Influenza A and B are the causes of the flu.
  3. Fungal - one of these you may be familiar with is candida, which causes diaper rashes

Antibiotics only help cure bacterial infections, and usually when your child has a runny nose, cough, red eyes, and fever, it is most likely a viral infection, otherwise known as “a cold.”.Antibiotics are helpful for only the first category, but they are not helpful for viral or fungal infections. A common misconception is that green mucus indicates a bacterial infection, but this is not true. Viruses commonly cause green thick runny noses and only time and rest will help it to go away.Sore throats that are accompanied by a runny nose and/or a cough are usually not strep throat and don’t require antibiotics either. A strep test can be done to ensure the correct diagnosis, but many doctors won’t even recommend one when the likelihood of Group A Strep being the cause of the illness is unlikely.

What’s the risk of antibiotic use?Unfortunately, side effects of antibiotics are rather common. And because of their side effects, pediatricians usually won't prescribe antibiotics unless they are very sure they are required.

It is always good to seek medical care when your child is sick. Pediatricians will guide you to determine the best way to manage and help your child feel better as quickly as possible, and determine whether an antibiotic is appropriate.