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Antibiotics are powerful drugs used to treat certain illnesses. However, antibiotics do not cure everything, and unnecessary antibiotics can even be harmful.

There are two main types of germs that cause most infections. These are viruses and bacteria.

Viruses cause:

  • all colds and flu.
  • most coughs.
  • most sore throats.

Antibiotics cannot kill viruses.

Bacteria cause:

  • most ear infections.
  • some sinus infections.
  • strep throat.
  • urinary tract infections.

Antibiotics do kill specific bacteria.

Some viruses cause symptoms that resemble bacterial infections, and some bacteria can cause symptoms that resemble viral infections. Your child's physician can determine what type of illness your child has and recommend the proper type of treatment.

What are resistant bacteria?

Each time you take an antibiotic, bacteria are killed. Sometimes, bacteria may be resistant or become resistant. Resistant bacteria do not respond to the antibiotics and continue to cause infection. A common misconception is that a person's body becomes resistant to specific drugs. However, it is the bacteria, not people, that become resistant to the drugs.

Each time you take or give your child an antibiotic unnecessarily or improperly, you increase the chance of developing drug-resistant bacteria. Therefore, it is critically important to take antibiotics only when necessary. Because of these resistant bacteria, some diseases that used to be easy to treat are now becoming nearly impossible to treat.

Bacteria can develop resistance to certain medications.

  • Drug resistance happens when bacteria develop ways to survive the use of medications meant to kill or weaken them.
  • If a germ becomes resistant to many drugs, treating the infections can become difficult or even impossible.
  • Someone with an infection that is resistant to a certain medication can pass that resistant infection to another person. In this way, a hard-to-treat illness can be spread from person to person. In some cases, the illness can lead to serious disability or even death.

When are antibiotics needed?

This complicated question, which should be answered by your child's physician, depends on the specific diagnosis. For example, there are several types of ear infections - most need antibiotics, but some do not. Most cases of sore throat are caused by viruses. One kind, strep throat, diagnosed by a laboratory test, requires antibiotics.

Viral infections can sometimes lead to bacterial infections. However, treating viral infections with antibiotics in order to prevent bacterial infections is not recommended.

  • Remember that antibiotics do not work against colds and flu, and that unnecessary antibiotics can be harmful.
  • Consult your child's pediatrician about antibiotics and find out about the differences between viruses and bacteria, and when antibiotics should and should not be used.
  • If your child does receive an antibiotic, be sure to give it exactly as prescribed to decrease the development of resistant bacteria.
  • Antibiotic resistance is particularly dangerous for children, but it can occur in adults, as well.

Remember that taking antibiotics appropriately and making sure your child receives the proper immunizations will help prevent having to take more dangerous and more costly medications. Consult your child's physician for more information.