During the year, you and your family most likely deal with your fair share of common colds. But what happens every time your child has a fever or a sore throat? Are you eager to take him to the family doctor, hoping there’s a quick fix to get rid of those nasty symptoms? Do you naturally expect a prescription for antibiotics?
Most parents do. And while it’s completely normal to want your little one to feel better as soon as possible, you should be aware of the fact that antibiotic isn’t always the answer and might do more damage than good in the long run. So next time your pediatrician is hesitant about prescribing an antibiotic for your sick baby, don’t be surprised or angry. Instead, be grateful – he might have done both you and your family a favor.
Antibiotics are undoubtedly indispensable when it comes to certain diseases and can be lifesavers when nothing else seems to work. However, this wonder drug has become the cornerstone of modern medicine over the years and is now used excessively, particularly in treating children. This lenient, unsupervised use of antibiotics has generated a host of unwanted, potentially life-threatening side effects and might be behind some of our most pervasive chronic diseases.
Approximately 40% of the times when children go in for a doctor’s visit, their parents leave with an antibiotic prescription. Moreover, according to a 1999 study published in Pediatrics, physicians will prescribe this drug for viral infections 62% of the time when asked by a patient. Given that children are afflicted by up to 8 colds per year, the average American kid will have received 20 courses of antibiotics by the time he or she’s 18 years old. Unfortunately, overuse of antibiotics begins even earlier – around 40% of women are given antibiotics during pregnancy.
Additionally, most American babies receive an antibiotic immediately after they are born. This was a measure of protecting the newborn from eye infections if the mother had gonorrhea back in the day. However, it has now become regular practice, irrespective of the mother’s STD status. As a result of these superfluous prescriptions, more than 140000 people make it to the emergency room every year due to adverse reactions to antibiotics, and half them have been given unnecessary prescriptions of the drug. Nonetheless, there are far more dangerous side effects that can affect both you and your family down the road.
There are two main types of germs that can make people sick – bacteria and viruses. The former are living organisms which exist as single cells and are mostly harmless or even beneficial for our health. Occasionally, certain bacteria multiply, invade the human body and meddle with its normal functioning mechanisms, causing disease. Antibiotics are incredibly powerful and effective against bacteria because they stop their reproduction and growth, killing them off eventually. On the other hand, viruses are not alive and are incapable of being active on their own. They can only grow and reproduce after the invasion of live organisms. There are two things that can happen once the body is infected with a virus – either our immune system fights it off before they cause any illness or we catch a cold and wait for it to run its course until we get better. Either way, antibiotics are completely ineffective when it comes to viruses.
Here are just a few reasons why we shouldn’t take overuse of antibiotics so lightly. When your child is unwarranted given antibiotics when they are not necessary for treatment, he or she is immediately exposed to its short-term potential side effects: thrush, diaper rash, diarrhea.
Moreover, it raises the risk of your baby developing a resistance to the drug, meaning that next time he or she is sick, a stronger antibiotic will be required. In the long run, overuse of antibiotic may increase the risk of autoimmune diseases, including juvenile arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Additionally, commonly-used antibiotics like tylosin and amoxicillin have been linked to slowed bone growth, weight gain and detrimental bacterial changes in the gut flora.
A recent CDC study shows that children given antibiotics for routine upper respiratory infections are more prone to develop aggressive antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria clostridium difficile, also known as C-diff. This bacteria can cause severe diarrhea in children, leading to 14000 deaths and 250000 infections in hospitalized patients each year. The study found that 71% of the children who suffered from C-diff disease had been given routine courses of antibiotics 12 weeks before the infection erupted.
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity examined the medical records of over 160000 children, aging from 3 to 18 years old – looking for antibiotic prescriptions and checking the body weight and height of the participants. The records showed that children who regularly used antibiotics gained weight faster than those who had never taken the drug. Not only did the antibiotics contribute to weight gain at all ages, but they had a lasting effect on weight gain well into adulthood. Scientists have known for years that antibiotics generates weight gain in livestock, but now recent evidence has come to light indicating that prolonged use also promotes stronger weight gain in humans.
In the last few decades, immunologists have reported a dramatic increase in the prevalence of allergies. Antibiotic use in the first few years of life has also been linked to increased odds of developing asthma, eczema and Chron’s disease. How is it that a product meant to kill off harmful bacteria can lead to susceptibility to allergy or respiratory diseases?
While antibiotics fight infections, the also reduce the normal bacteria count in our gastrointestinal system – also known as the gut microbiome. Contrary to popular belief, not all bacteria in our gut are harmful or dangerous. In fact, some are beneficial to the human body and are crucial in maintaining a strong immune system and, consequently, good health. The danger comes when the aggressive antibiotics target not only the noxious bacteria, but also the “good bacteria” in the body. Researchers believe that this disruption in the gut flora is a contributing factor to the rise in chronic health conditions such as asthma, obesity and even cancer.
The overuse of antibiotics can lead to bacteria developing resistance by either learning how to better protect itself or by neutralizing the drug. A single bacterium which survives an antibiotic treatment can then multiply and impart its resistant properties. This leads to the growth of new bacteria strains – sometimes known as superbugs – which are resistant to antibiotics altogether. This is probably one of the most distressing consequences of antibiotic overuse. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is “one of the world’s most pressing public health concerns”. As more and more bacteria have grown stronger and developed immunity to treatment in certain communities across the country, this has become a large-scale public health issue.
The early exposure to this drug coupled with its cumulative effect has been shown to lead to dangerous, far-reaching side effects over time. The issue comes when doctors knowingly prescribe antibiotics for regular colds or flu – either to appease the parents and avoid a conflict or “just to be on the safe side”.
It is a medically known fact that antibiotics are useless in treating infections caused by common viruses. But oftentimes, parents expect a prescription instead of letting the cold die down on its own. In turn, doctors don’t feel that they have sufficient time to explain the complications associated with antibiotics during a regular sick visit. It’s much quicker and hassle-free to prescribe a pill and reassure the parent. Doctors are also afraid of being sued, in case an infection did turn out to be more serious than they anticipated and they didn’t recommend an antibiotic course for it.
Lastly, pediatricians might not be knowledgeable when it comes to antibiotic alternatives and simply prescribe what they think will help. Despite the fact that antibiotics will not cure the infection, will not keep other people from getting sick and will not make the child feel better or ease his or her symptoms, up to 60% of children with common colds are treated with antibiotics, according to the Journal of Family Practice. This does not only expose children to several dangerous and possibly life-threatening side effects, but also destroys their gut flora and increases their resistance to the drug in the long run.
There are various factors contributing to antibiotic overuse, but one of the most critical aspect is prescribing the drugs unnecessarily. When penicillin and other antibiotics were first introduced, they were viewed as wonder drugs because they worked when nothing else did, in a short amount of time and with relatively few side effects. They were perceived as the magic pill for all common illnesses.
However, more recent research has proven that antibiotics, as remarkable as they are, are in fact not the answer to everything, as there are certain diseases in the face of which they are completely inefficient. Given the unwanted consequences of undue, misdirected treatment, there are several cases when your child is better off without an antibiotic prescription.
Any of the following ailments can be treated with safer, more effective alternatives – flu, common cold, bronchitis, most sore throats, most coughs, stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis), certain ear infections, certain sinus infections.
One of the most important steps to take in avoiding this public health hazard is to prevent the recurrent appearance of upper respiratory infections (including sore throats, coughs, colds).
This can be done by promoting good health and ensuring that your children are consuming a healthy, whole foods diet, with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein and fats, as well as low amounts of sugar and other artificial sweeteners found in soft drinks and junk food. It’s also important to nourish the gut flora with probiotics. You can take your kids out and let them play outside in the dirt in order to get exposure to the natural probiotics in the soil. Or, you can give them a multivitamin or a probiotic supplement to ensure that the good bacteria in their gut doesn’t get killed off or is constantly restored.
You should also become informed about the treatment options you do have when you go in for your next doctor’s visit. You can check out the CDC website called Get Smart in order to learn more about alternative treatment recommendations. If your healthcare professional says that antibiotics are not needed for your child, do not demand them like most parents do.
Ask if your little one’s illness is viral or bacterial and discuss the benefits and risks of antibiotics with your doctor. Also, make sure you ask for other options if you are offered antibiotics as a treatment for a viral infection. If your pediatrician prescribes the drug for a bacterial infection, remember to not let your child skip any doses and do not stop taking them early, unless your physician tells you otherwise. Do not save any leftover pills for the next time your child gets sick.
If you are not prescribed antibiotics, but your child has a cold and feels very ill, there are a few things you can do to help him or her weather the storm and speed up recovery. Make sure that your child is drinking lots of fluids and getting enough rest during the night. You can also use a cool-mist vaporizer or a nasal spray to release congestion, as well as make some crushed ice or buy a specialized spray to soothe their sore throats. If your child has a common cold, remember that time is the best medicine and that waiting it out is the most effective and least damaging thing you can do for your little one’s health.