Did you know that taking antibiotics when you or your child has a virus may do more harm than good? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where children are concerned, antibiotics are the most common cause of emergency department visits for adverse drug events. This is one of several messages the CDC has been putting out this week as part of a worldwide push to raise awareness about antibiotic resistance, and how inappropriate use of these bacteria-fighting drugs is fuelling the problem.

Rest, fluids and over-the-counter medication is the preferred option for treating a virus, says the CDC.

Colds and many other infections of the upper respiratory tract, plus some ear infections, are not caused by bacteria, but by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria, yet although CDC efforts have led to fewer children receiving unnecessary antibiotics in recent years, too many are too often being given antibiotics for colds and other viral infections.

Not only does inappropriate use of antibiotics lead to increased resistance, it also increases the cost burden on the health system because resistant infections are harder, take longer, and are more expensive to treat.

Antibiotics are the most important tool we have for fighting life-threatening bacterial infections, and yet resistance to these drugs is also one of the world’s most pressing public health threats, says the CDC.

The agency urges people to get Smart and not expect to receive antibiotics for viral infections.

For instance colds, most sore throats, acute bronchitis and many sinus or ear infections are viral and will not be helped by antibiotics. Instead, this is what is more likely to happen:

  • The infection will not be cured.
  • Other people will still get sick.
  • You or your child will not feel better.
  • You or your child may experience unnecessary and harmful side effects.

The CDC asks people not to press for antibiotics if their doctor says they don’t need them, and also not to take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. Not only can using someone else’s prescribed drug be wrong for the illness that you or your child have, taking the wrong medication can delay correct treatment and allows bacteria to multiply.

Inappropriate use of antibiotics is not just about taking them when they are not needed. Much of the problem of antibiotic resistance occurs when patients are prescribed them for the right reason, but then take them incorrectly. So if you are prescribed an antibiotic, you should not skip doses, and definitely not save it for next time.

If you or your child have an upper respiratory tract infection, you should:

  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter products that provide relief.
  • Increase fluid intake and take plenty of rest.
  • Relieve congestion with a saline nasal spray or a cool-mist vaporizer.
  • Soothe a sore throat with chips of ice, throat spray or lozenges, but never give lozenges to small children.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD