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Information About Antibiotic Use in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.


How healthcare providers decide if your child needs antibiotics:

Antibiotics are used to fight infections that are caused by bacteria. Your child's healthcare provider will decide if your child's illness is caused by bacteria. This decision is based on an exam, your child's symptoms, or tests that check for bacteria. If your child's healthcare provider decides the infection is caused by bacteria, your child may be given an antibiotic. Sometimes your child's healthcare provider may wait to prescribe antibiotics. This is called watchful waiting. Watchful waiting gives your child's immune system time to fight the infection without antibiotics. This can help prevent antibiotic resistance.

What you need to know about antibiotic resistance:

  • Antibiotics do not always kill all the bacteria causing an infection. Bacteria that survive will be stronger and may become resistant to antibiotics. This means that antibiotics will not work to kill these stronger bacteria like they should. Certain infections can then develop, called antibiotic-resistant infections. An example of an antibiotic-resistant infection is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
  • Antibiotic resistance can happen when antibiotics are overused or not taken correctly. The following are examples of how antibiotics are overused or not used correctly.
    • Your child takes an antibiotic for a viral infection.
    • Your child takes an antibiotic instead of letting his or her body fight the infection on its own.
    • Your child does not finish the antibiotic prescription as directed.
  • Antibiotic resistance makes infections hard to treat. If your child gets an infection that is resistant to antibiotics, he or she may become very sick. He or she may spread the infection to others. He or she will need stronger medicine to treat the infection. Your child's illness may become life-threatening.

How healthcare providers decide if your child needs antibiotics while he or she is in the hospital:

Your child's healthcare provider may start your child on antibiotics after blood is drawn for tests. Once the test results are known, your child's healthcare provider may change the antibiotic. He or she may stop giving the antibiotic if your child's infection is caused by a virus.

What you need to know about antibiotics:

  • Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. A virus cannot be killed by antibiotics. You can treat your child's signs and symptoms, such as a cough or fever, until the infection clears.
  • Antibiotics will not cure a bacterial infection or make your child feel better sooner. They will kill the bacteria, but it will still take time for the infection to clear. It may take several days for your child to feel better. He or she may instead feel better in a few days. Give all of the antibiotics your child was prescribed, even if you think they are not helping or your child starts to feel better sooner.
  • Antibiotics will not prevent the spread of infection. Your child's healthcare provider will tell you when your child is no longer contagious after he or she starts taking antibiotics. This will depend on the kind of bacteria causing your child's infection.
  • Antibiotics may cause side effects. Tell your child's healthcare provider if your child has had side effects from other medicines. Also tell the provider if your child is allergic to any medicines. Antibiotics commonly cause side effects such as an upset stomach, a rash, and diarrhea. Your child's provider can help you manage side effects.
  • Antibiotics increase your child's risk for Clostridium difficile (C. diff). Antibiotics remove the bacteria causing infection in your child's body, but they also remove some good bacteria. C. diff bacteria can grow while your child is taking antibiotics. The following can help you manage C. diff infections:
    • The risk for C. diff diarrhea can last a few weeks, even after your child has stopped taking antibiotics. Tell your child's provider if your child has diarrhea during or after antibiotic treatment.
    • Your child's provider may recommend probiotics (good bacteria). They can help protect your child from harmful bacteria and may help prevent more infections. Depending on his or her age, your child may be able to eat yogurt or other foods high in probiotics. His or her provider may instead recommend a pill or liquid form.

Conditions that are treated with antibiotics:

The following conditions are often caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics:

  • Strep throat
  • Whooping cough
  • A urinary tract infection (UTI)

Conditions that may be treated with antibiotics:

Some conditions can be caused by bacteria or a virus. Your child's healthcare provider may or may not treat the following conditions with antibiotics:

  • A sinus infection
  • An ear infection
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

Conditions that are not treated with antibiotics:

Antibiotics will not treat infections caused by a virus. The following conditions are not treated with antibiotics:

  • Colds
  • Most coughs
  • Flu
  • A sore throat other than strep throat
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Ask your child's healthcare provider:

  • Does my child need an antibiotic to treat his or her infection?
  • Is watchful waiting right for my child?
  • What is the best antibiotic to treat my child's infection if he or she does need one?
  • What are the side effects of the antibiotic my child needs to take?
  • How long does my child need to take the antibiotic?

What you can do to help prevent antibiotic resistance:

  • Give your child's antibiotic as directed. Do not let your child skip a dose of the antibiotic. Do not let your child stop taking the antibiotic, even if he or she feels better. Finish the entire course of the antibiotic unless your child's healthcare provider tells you to stop.
  • Get rid of any antibiotics your child did not use. Ask your child's healthcare provider or pharmacist how to get rid of antibiotics. Do not share your child's antibiotic with another person. Do not let your child take a leftover antibiotic for another illness without talking to his or her healthcare provider.
  • Ask about vaccines your child may need. Vaccines can help prevent infections. Take your child to get a flu vaccine as soon as recommended each year, usually in September or October. Ask about other vaccines your child may need, such as vaccines to prevent meningitis.
    Recommended Immunization Schedule 2022
  • Have your child wash his or her hands often to prevent the spread of infection. Have him or her use soap and running water. He or she can use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol when soap and water are not available.
  • Do not ask your child's healthcare provider to prescribe antibiotics. Your child's healthcare provider can recommend other treatments based on your child's illness. An example includes over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs.

Seek care immediately if:

  • Your child has skin blisters or burning.
  • Your child has trouble breathing, swelling in his or her mouth or throat, or a rash that spreads over his or her body.
  • Your child has diarrhea that contains blood.
  • Your child has severe stomach cramps.
  • Your child has sores or white patches in his or her mouth.

Call your child's doctor if:

  • Your child has mild to moderate nausea, an upset stomach, or diarrhea.
  • Your child has a mild rash or other skin problems.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

© Copyright Merative 2022 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.