Antibiotic resistance started making headlines about 10 years ago, when experts discovered that thanks to 60 years of excessive use of the meds, many common bacteria had learned how to outsmart them. As these bacteria reproduce and become more powerful, fewer drugs are strong enough to combat even common infections, rendering the bugs more dangerous. Unfortunately, kids are most vulnerable: Children have the highest rate of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Related: Do Vaccines Cause Autism?
But don't be too quick to blame pill-happy pediatricians. Turns out that parents continue to push for antibiotic prescriptions even when kids don't need them (are moms wired to worry?). In a 2002 survey, doctors admitted prescribing antibiotics 65 percent of the time if they thought parents expected them, but only 12 percent if they felt parents didn't. Not only does overprescription of antibiotics help set the stage for antibiotic resistance, it may also increase your child's risk of certain chronic illnesses: Babies who are treated with just one course of antibiotics before their first birthday are twice as likely to develop asthma, according to one recent study.
Related: Can Food Make Your Child Sick?
So how to know when antibiotics are needed and when they're overkill? Here, three common childhood ailments (check out three more ) - and the safest, most effective ways to treat them..
Both of these dreaded bugs are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics won't help - not even when the gunk from his nose turns yellow or green (a symptom many people believe is a sign of bacterial infection). And while it's true that a cold can lead to sinus infection (more info below), antibiotics won't help head one off.
It's one of the common myths about the flu, though, that there is no treatment for it. The best treatment approach: rest, fluids (to keep sinuses draining), an OTC fever-reducer (such as ibuprofen), a decongestant before bed, and a cool-mist humidifier (to soothe inflamed sinuses).
Related: Which Is It? Cold, Flu, or Allergies?
Sinus Infections (Sinusitis)
A cold can last up to two weeks, but if your child's symptoms don't improve after 10 days and she's suffering from coughing, puffy eyes, fever, headache, and/or facial pain, there's a good chance she's developed a bacterial sinus infection.
"The cold virus can inflame the mucous membranes in the sinuses and nose, trapping the bacteria that normally live there and resulting in infection," says Kenneth A. Alexander, M.D., a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Chicago.
It's impossible to diagnose a sinus infection from a physical exam alone (other triggers, like allergies, can cause similar symptoms), so your pediatrician will also consider symptom duration. If all signs point toward a sinus infection, it's time for amoxicillin, the most effective antibiotic for this type of infection.
Related: Is Your Child Too Sick for School?
When doctors diagnose an ear infection, they're often referring to otitis media with effusion (OME), which strikes 90 percent of children at least once before school age. Characterized by fluid buildup in the middle ear and inflammation in the inner ear, OME typically doesn't involve bacteria and resolves on its own within three months.
Another type of ear infection, known as acute otitis media (AOM), can involve bacteria - but up to 80 percent of cases clear up without treatment within a few days.
Even so, when your little one complains of ear pain, don't ignore the symptoms (and never ignore these symptoms if you experience them). "It may be a symptom of other conditions, such as strep throat or infections of the neck or brain," says Alexander. If your pediatrician suspects AOM, but your child is 3 or older and hasn't had an ear infection in the last year, the best treatment is an OTC pain reliever along with watchful waiting. Any increase in pain or continuing fever after 48 hours requires an ear recheck. Kids under 3, or those with chronic ear infections or other signs of illness, will likely be given amoxicillin.
Related: 3 Things You Never Knew About Parenting
STOP INFECTION IN ITS TRACKS
The best way to avoid giving your kids too many antibiotics? Help them stay well to begin with. Some quick tips:
- Teach kids to wash their hands with soap and warm water after playing and before eating. They should scrub for 30 seconds (long enough for one round of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star").
- Use alcohol-based hand wipes or hand gels when you can't get to a sink. Avoid those with triclosan, an antibacterial agent that kills only weaker bacteria. Related: The Real Deal on Germs
- Show your child how to cough into her sleeve, and use tissues instead of her hands to wipe her nose.
- Have each family member use his/her own towel.
- Clean all wounds properly: Flush for one minute with running water, wash with soap, rinse, and cover with a bandage until healed. Related: What's Up with That Rash?
- Make sure your child receives all four Prevnar vaccinations. There have been periods of shortages since the vaccine's release, so some kids didn't get all four doses. Related: 4 Lifesaving Vaccines Adults Need
- Make sure your kids are eating a healthy diet, full of vitamins that will help boost their immune systems. Related: How to Raise a Healthy Eater
PLUS: Can breastfeeding help boost your baby's immune system? And should you do it?
Have your kids been on antibiotics recently? How do you deal when they are sick?
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