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Kids and antibiotics: When they need them and when they really don't.

NPS MedicineWise
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It’s cold and flu season – so here’s everything you need to know.

It usually starts with a sneeze. You hear it, and get that sinking feeling. Not another cold or flu…

It’s tempting to grab your sick kid and take them off to the GP for some antibiotics – because you don’t want to put the whole family through another bout of illness, and honestly, you just can’t afford to take more time off work.

But stop. If it’s a cold or flu, antibiotics aren’t going to do any good. Colds and flu are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria. And in fact, giving kids antibiotics when they don’t really need them can be bad for them.

“A course of antibiotics won’t help children get over a cold or flu faster, won’t stop the infection from getting worse, and won’t prevent it from being passed onto other people,” explains Dr Jeannie Yoo.

what do you need antibiotics for
“It’s tempting to grab your sick kid and take them off to the GP for some antibiotics – because you don’t want to put the whole family through another bout of illness, and honestly, you just can’t afford to take more time off work.” Image via iStock.

Antibiotics can cause unpleasant side effects such as skin rashes, diarrhoea and vomiting.”

On top of that, the more often antibiotics are used, the more chances bacteria have to become resistant to them.

So how do you know when antibiotics are needed and when they aren’t? Read on…

1. Cold.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with these symptoms: sneezing, a blocked-up or runny nose, a sore throat and a cough. Colds are common – the average child gets between five and 10 a year – but they can still make children feel pretty bad. It generally takes just over a week to get over a cold, while a cough can stick around for three weeks.

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You can give kids paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain or fever. However, children under six shouldn’t take cough and cold medicine, and children under 11 should only take it with medical advice. You can try a saline spray or drops to clear a blocked nose, or you can put your child in the bathroom with a steamy shower. And, of course, plenty of rest will help.

2. Flu.

This is different from a cold. Someone with influenza will have a high fever, they’ll be shivery and sweaty, and their whole body will ache. They’ll feel exhausted. Unfortunately, antibiotics won’t help, but as with a cold, kids can be given paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain and fever.

Most kids will recover from influenza without any problems, but if the symptoms get worse – a temperature that’s over 40 degrees or just won’t go down, or if your child seems really listless, uncomfortable or unwell – don’t hesitate to see a doctor. Nearly 1500 children with influenza are admitted to hospital in Australia each year.

what do you need antibiotics for
“Nearly 1500 children with influenza are admitted to hospital in Australia each year.” Image via iStock.

3. Ear infection.

Every year, about 10 per cent of kids will get a middle ear infection. Most of them will be over the pain within 24 hours without any medication, but children under the age of two are more likely to need antibiotics.

See a doctor if you think your child’s ear infection is getting worse, or if there are other symptoms like vomiting, fever, or swelling or redness behind the ear.

4. Pneumonia.

This can develop after a cold or flu. If your child has pneumonia, they’ll probably find breathing more difficult – you may be able to see their ribs sucking in with each breath.

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Other symptoms include chest pain, coughing, tummy pain and vomiting. See a doctor. If it’s bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics will clear it up, but if it’s viral pneumonia, they won’t help, and recovery can take a while.

what do you need antibiotics for
” If it’s bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics will clear it up, but if it’s viral pneumonia, they won’t help, and recovery can take a while.” Image via iStock.

5. Whooping cough.

The symptoms of whooping cough differ depending on the age of the person, but it can be very serious, especially for babies. One in every 200 babies with whooping cough will die.

Whooping cough starts like a cold, but then the bouts of coughing begin. Young children will often end a bout with that distinctive whooping sound, as they’re forced to take a deep breath in.

Babies might experience a pause in breathing, rather than a whoop – coughing is not necessarily a feature of whooping cough in babies. Older children might vomit at the end of a bout. The infection is generally milder in teens and adults, especially if they’ve been vaccinated, and they’re less likely to make that whooping sound. If you suspect whooping cough, get your child to a doctor. Antibiotics are likely to be prescribed.

So remember – leave the antibiotics for when they’re really needed, and then they’re more likely to be effective.

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