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Health Tips for Parents

2005 Issues

When should antibiotics be prescribed?


Many infectious diseases can be prevented through simple and inexpensive methods. The Center for Disease Control suggests the following:

  • Wash your hands often; this is probably the most important practice to prevent spreading illness.
  • Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces.
  • Handle and prepare food safely.
  • Get immunized as recommended by your physician.

Cold and flu season has arrived, and parents are nursing children with runny noses, sore throats, ear infections and fevers. Many parents believe that antibiotics will cure these illnesses but, in fact, overuse of antibiotics in both children and adults has become a serious public health issue. As germs develop resistance to antibiotics, the medications become less and less effective,  leaving children more vulnerable to serious infections.

Viral and Bacterial Infections

Two types of germs cause illness: bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are living organisms that cause illness by invading healthy cells and either producing toxins or multiplying to a point that interferes with normal body functions. Antibiotics are effective against bacteria because they kill these living organisms. Viruses are another class of living organisms that can cause infection. The body's natural immune system destroys some viruses before they cause illness, others must simply run their course. Antibiotics will not cure a viral infection, help a child feel better, or prevent the illness from being spread.

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics destroy harmful bacteria. Taking an antibiotic unnecessarily allows the germs to develop resistance to the medication and continue to flourish. As a result, antibiotics are becoming less effective for certain illnesses. Some children may require multiple doses of strong antibiotics to cure their illnesses. According to Dr. Rita Mangione-Smith, a pediatrician at the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA, pharmaceutical companies cannot keep pace with the ever-rising level of antibiotic resistance in the United States.

Parental Pressure

Why are children taking antibiotics unnecessarily? Parental pressure plays a big part. "Parents come to the pediatrician with a sick child and they want a solution right away," Dr. Mangione-Smith explains. A UCLA study showed that when a pediatrician perceives that a parent expects antibiotics, they are 22 percent more likely to prescribe a medication, even if not necessary. "The only way to determine if an illness is bacterial or viral is to have a physician examine the child," Dr. Mangione-Smith notes.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can help their children immensely by following their pediatrician's advice and describing accurately their child's symptoms. Green mucous does not necessarily indicate a sinus infection, and antibiotics do not necessarily cure ear infections, coughs, sore throats and colds, Dr. Mangione-Smith points out. When the illness is viral, discuss with the doctor ways to treat the symptoms to make the child more comfortable. When antibiotics are prescribed for a bacterial infection, symptoms usually significantly improve in a day or two. Make sure the patient finishes the entire course of antibiotics, even if he or she is feeling better. Also, never use antibiotics that may be lying around in the medicine cabinet. According to Dr. Mangione-Smith, there are hundreds of antibiotics available - each one unique in its strength and suited for different illnesses. Parents can unknowingly cause their child great harm by guessing and treating an illness with antibiotics without physician supervision.

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. UCLA Healthcare pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles. Additional information can be found on the UCLA Healthcare web site at www.healthcare.ucla.edu or by calling 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (1-800-825-2631).

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