Are antibiotics good for tummy bugs?

Do you bring your child to the doctor and expect antibiotics for colds, ear infections, sore throats and stomach infections? Many parents do and they’re surprised, maybe even angry, if they leave the doctor’s office empty-handed – healthy kid or not.

It’s often difficult for doctors to quickly differentiate between viral and bacterial infections and many are hurried to prescribe antibiotics for many conditions. Everyone wants a child to get well quick, but the improper use of antibiotics is bad even with the best of intentions.

Antibiotics are anti-bacterial, not anti-viral. Stomach flus, colds, and most ear infections and sore throats are viral infections. If antibiotics are taken for a viral condition, not only does your child not get well but antibiotics can harm other key systems within the body. Viruses must simply run their course as they do not respond to antibiotics at all.

Antibiotics kill good bacteria that are integral in the digestion and absorption of various vitamins and minerals. Giving antibiotics does not get to the cause of the condition and weakens one’s immune system. When the immune system is weakened, a person, especially young children experience stronger, more frequent infections.

Overusing and overprescribing antibiotics has resulted in the development of resistant bacteria, which are bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotics. As resistance increases, the number of effective antibiotics is decreasing. This means that, one day, no antibiotics may be left to fight life-threatening diseases.

Antimicrobial resistance – also known as drug resistance – occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change in ways that render the medications used to cure the infections they cause ineffective. When the microorganisms become resistant, they are often referred to as “superbugs”, according to the World Health Organization.

What should you do when your child gets sick? Seek advice and ask questions. It’s important to only treat bacterial infections. Letting milder illnesses run their course to avoid the development of drug-resistant germs is often a good idea.

If you do visit a doctor, ask questions about whether your child’s illness is bacterial or viral, and discuss the risks and benefits of antibiotics. If it is a virus, talk to your doctor and don’t pressure them to prescribe antibiotics. Most kids feel better within one-to-two days if you let a mild condition run its course.

If you are prescribed antibiotics, use the medication properly and in it’s entirety. Saving extra antibiotics “for next time” is a bad idea too. Any remaining antibiotics should be thrown out as soon as your child is well again. Never use antibiotics that have been lying around your home or prescribed for another person or family member.

You can help fight antibiotic resistance by taking simple steps to prevent the spread of infections. Frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness. Keep in mind that antibacterial soap is no more effective than regular soap at killing germs. Using antibacterial soap may even contribute to resistance.

Always wash your hands before eating or preparing food, using the toilet or changing a diaper, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands and simply whenever they look dirty.

Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and global health care education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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