Antibiotics and your child: What you need to know

Very often, the cause of your child’s illness is viral and antibiotics won’t work.

Should your child be taking antibiotics? We take a look at the pros and cons of treating infections with antibiotics.

Before you give your child antibiotics, know this: Some common childhood illnesses can’t be treated with antibiotics and, in some instances, giving your child antibiotics might make a bad situation even worse!

Your toddler has been sneezing, coughing, and wheezing for the past three nights, and she has a mild temperature. Not too many years ago – and in many cases, still today – your doctor would have prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic immediately in the hopes that the catch-all drug would eliminate whichever bacteria may be responsible.

The truth is, your little one’s flu is most likely viral – and antibiotics cannot kill viruses. Furthermore, times have changed – decades of antibiotic overuse, including unnecessary prescriptions and patients stopping the course of drugs too soon, have led to a global health crisis: antibiotic resistance. This means the bacteria are mutating so the drugs often no longer work for people, including babies, who desperately need them to treat life-threatening infections.

Antibiotic resistance is happening worldwide and can affect anyone, of any age, according to a 2014 report by the World Health Organisation. In addition to this, up to 50% of antibiotic prescriptions for acute respiratory infections are unnecessary, says Professor Morgan Chetty, chief executive officer of the KwaZulu-Natal Managed Care Coalition. Speaking at the recent sixth annual Africa Health exhibition and congress in Johannesburg, he noted that there is also a decrease in new drugs on the market. From 1983 to 2002, there was a 56% reduction in the number of new antibiotics available.

7 Facts about antibiotics you need to know

  1. Antibiotics can’t treat viral illnesses. This includes common colds and 90% of gastroenteritis cases, unless there is blood in the stool or a high temperature.
  2. Ear infections are often viral, as are children’s illnesses such as measles and chickenpox.
  3. Even throat infections are usually caused by viruses. However, when your toddler’s temperature soars over 38.5°C and there is pus or green mucus present, your doctor should ideally take a throat swab, which will indicate whether the cause is bacterial and antibiotics can be prescribed.
  4. If a baby has a temperature of 39°C, she is seriously ill and may need antibiotics.
  5. Bladder infections require antibiotics, says Cape Town-based paediatrician Dr Deon Smith. . Ask your doctor to send off a urine sample for laboratory testing to make sure you’re using the correct drugs.
  6. Where antibiotics are necessary, make sure your child finishes the course, even if she feels better after a few days, to ensure the bugs are wiped out.
  7. If your baby is on antibiotics, bear in mind that she can still have them on an empty stomach – even if she has no appetite. Don’t skip a dose, advises Dr Smith.

Antibiotics destroys good bacteria

Very often, the cause of your child’s illness is viral, says Dr Jaci Schultz, a Johannesburg-based clinical homoeopath registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa. But if the relevant testing has been done and confirmed that there is a bacterial infection, give your child the antibiotic if it is indicated. Some antibiotics can have unpleasant side effects, such as diarrhoea, and this is why parents sometimes stop the course halfway through, but it is important to finish it.

Make sure your child follows a healthy diet to help the antibiotics be effective, and be aware that she may feel unwell two to three weeks after completing the course. This is normal, so don’t move on to the next course of antibiotics straight away.

The fact that an illness is caused by bacteria does not always mean antibiotics are necessary – the body can sometimes fight the bacteria by itself.

Your little one’s safety, however, is paramount. “A child can only accurately verbalise by the age of two, so a proper diagnosis is important. Don’t refuse to allow your child an antibiotic when it’s necessary – you don’t want to put her in danger. “If you do decide to go with homeopathic treatment, choose a qualified, registered practitioner, who is able to diagnose,” Dr Schultz concludes.