Would you give a child a powerful prescription drug for a case of the sniffles? Most parents wouldn’t dream of it, but a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that too many kids are still getting antibiotics for colds and sore throats for reasons that appear to be more psychological than medical. What’s more, taking the drugs is leading to dangerous antibiotic resistance.
The study, published this month in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that for every 1,000 kids taken to doctors for cold or sore throat symptoms, 229 go home with a prescription for antibiotics—even though these illnesses are usually viral, and don’t respond to these drugs. Although that’s a 24 percent drop from the numbers of the 1990s, these findings are not good news. Here’s what you need to know to make sure your kids (and you, too) aren’t put at risk by taking antibiotics unnecessarily:
What do antibiotics treat?
Introduced in the 1940s, antibiotics were hailed as wonder drugs, and indeed they were: penicillin and the many antibiotics developed since then were able to cure bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis, strep throat, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and many infections. Antibiotics work by killing the bugs responsible for an illness or inhibiting their growth. Only one percent of all bacteria are capable of causing illness. Some beneficial ones live in our gut and help us digest food, provide us with some nutrients and destroy some bad bugs.
Why shouldn’t kids take antibiotics?
If a child has a strep throat or is sick with another disorder caused by bacteria, there’s no reason to avoid these drugs. However, viruses, not bacteria, cause colds and most sore throats so there’s no point in taking an antibiotic. In the long run, using antibiotics for these common viral illnesses can lead to antibiotic resistance, a growing problem in today’s world that is making more and more diseases harder to treat.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Every time someone takes antibiotics, bacteria that are sensitive to that drug are killed, but resistant germs may survive and multiply. Almost every type of bacteria has gotten stronger and less responsive to antibiotics, the CDC reports, creating new strains of superbugs. Bacteria acquire resistant traits either via genetic mutations or by picking up resistant DNA from already resistant bacteria. Overuse or improper use of antibiotics is the main cause of this problem, which has lead to drug-resistant pneumonias, skin infections and sexually transmitted diseases, among other health threats.
How serious are the effects? People infected with drug-resistant microbes are more likely to require hospitalization and are at increased risk for dying from their disease. And because the usual antibiotics no longer work, MDs are forced to turn to second- or third-choice drugs that are often more toxic, less effective, and more expensive. Resistant superbugs are a threat in both hospitals and in the community, where they can be spread through hand-to-hand contact, touching contaminated surfaces, or airborne droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. MRSA(methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is the best-known superbug.
Why do doctors prescribe antibiotics for viral infections? For some, it may be the path of least resistance when parents are pressuring them to “do something” to help a sick kid. Although doctors know that antibiotics won’t help a child with a cold or sore throat, many apparently find it difficult to tell parents that there’s nothing they can do to speed recovery. The truth is, about all anyone can do for a cold or sore throat is to get rest, drink lots of fluids, treat the symptoms and wait it out. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel has recommended against giving children under four the nonprescription cold remedies adults can take to ease symptoms. These over-the-counter medications don’t seem to work in this age group and may not be safe for kids under two.
What can parents do to guard against antibiotic resistance?
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the most important thing you can do is to make sure your kids take antibiotics only when it’s absolutely necessary – when they have an illness caused by a bacterial infection. Antibiotics won’t cure colds or flu, both of which are viral infections, and are ineffective against most sore throats. When an antibiotic is prescribed, be sure that you or your child takes it according to directions – taking less of the drug because you feel better allows germs to survive, which could give rise to the next generation of superbugs. And to protect yourself and your family against antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are already around, the best defense is frequent hand washing.