Antibiotic use is the direct cause of the rise of untreatable superbugs that are killing people.
Antibiotic use is also the cause of most cases of C. diff colitis in kids, a potentially life-threatening, difficult-to-treat gut disorder. Antibiotics have also been linked with recurrent wheezing in infants and inflammatory bowel disease. They can also trigger allergic reactions that can be severe or life-threatening. (I was going to link to photos of Stevens Johnson Syndrome, but decided not to be cruel. Go ahead and Google at your risk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Most infections in children are caused by viral infections. This includes all common colds, most coughs, most sore throats, most nasal congestion, and most fevers. It includes most bronchitis, most pneumonia, and most wheezing. Croup, laryngitis, tonsillitis, upper respiratory infections: They’re all viral. They are caused by viruses.
There is no circumstance where any antibiotic medication helps anyone with a viral infection get better. They don’t make viral infections go away faster, and they don’t prevent the development of later bacterial infections. They just don’t work.
Even “bacterial” infections often don’t need antibiotics to get better. Most ear infections will resolve without antibiotics, and good studies have shown that antibiotics, overall, are not effective in treating sinus infections.
So, the potential for great harm. And no upside. If you’ve got an accurate diagnosis of a viral infection, you know that the antibiotics aren’t going to help. Zero benefit. Some real risk. You’d think this would be a no-brainer kind of decision.
And yet, every single day I feel this struggle with some parents who just want antibiotics. It’s really strange, in a way: I listen to the story, I do a careful exam, and if possible I get a confident diagnosis. I talk about what will help the child feel better, and red flags to look out for to contact us if things get worse. And I get back a stare. “Can’t I just get an antibiotic?” or “He needs an antibiotic for his sinus” or “My doctor just gave me an antibiotic. He has the same thing.”
It’s our own fault, I know. Doctors have been way too quick to write antibiotic prescriptions. It’s much faster to whip out the prescription pad than talk about viruses and bacteria. And, more nefariously, writing antibiotic prescriptions creates a culture of dependency that guarantees future business. Patients, at least some of them, seem more satisfied if they just get a magic antibiotic prescription. Why anger people, why fight it, why not just give out the pills and move on to the next patient? Happy parents, happy cash register.
Besides: I know there’s a good chance they’ll go right to the QuickieClinic in the drug store across the street and get their peniwondercillin prescription anyway. (And then I’ll be the one called with the weird allergic reaction or when Junior didn’t get better because he needs a “stronger” antibiotic. QuickieClinic doesn’t offer 24/7 access to their doctor. They don’t offer any access to any doctor. But I’m getting off topic here.)
Why fight it? Because I’m your kids’ doctor. I’m not here to make you happy, or give you what you think you need. I’m here to try to get an accurate diagnosis and to do the best thing for my patient. I’m here to give solid advice about how to help your kiddo feel better, and to tell you when to worry, and when not to worry. I will not always get it right, but I’m going to try my best every time, even when that means I’m not giving you the prescription you want. And I’ll be here to help when things take an unexpected turn, because symptoms and diagnoses change. I can’t guarantee when your child will get better, but I’ll do my best to do the things that can genuinely help.
You want a burger your way? Go to Burger King. You want a quick antibiotic prescription? Go to the retail clinic in the drug store, or one of those docs or practitioners who see 60 kids a day. You want someone to use their professional skills and judgment to help your child? Find yourself physicians who’re stingy with the prescription pad.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com