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Viruses, Bacteria, and Broad-Spectrum Antibiotics, Oh My

broad-spectrum antibiotics

Brace yourself – this could be a sour pill to swallow: Antibiotics will not, in any way, shape, or form – and no matter how much we would like them to – eradicate a viral infection.

Only time, rest, and fluids can do that.

As a matter of fact, pediatric providers even thinking about prescribing antibiotics must first identify the pathogen that is afflicting their patient, and it must be bacterial in nature. They then must consider what class of antibiotic to administer, as different kinds of antibiotics are effective against different types of bacteria. Many operate on completely different mechanisms, such as penicillin, which specifically targets cell walls. If the bacterial agent causing your illness, or your child’s illness, does not have walls, treating it with penicillin would be unsuccessful.

Additionally, medical providers must also guard against the excessive use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which act against a wide-range of disease-causing bacteria. Prescribing these drugs can be problematic for a number of reasons:

  • They target good bacteria in addition to the bad. Good bacteria stored in the gut generate vitamins and help to boost the immune system. Antibiotics can wipe them out, leading to a rise in chronic health conditions such as asthma and obesity.
  • Overuse contributes to increased antibiotic resistance. This could ultimately result in a drug’s widespread failure to fight a disease in the future.
  • Some broad-spectrum drugs that work for adults may not have the same reaction in children and could ultimately do more harm than good. Fluoroquinolones, which are often prescribed to treat urinary tract infections, are a prime example.

A little known fact is that many bacterial infections will actually self-resolve without the aid of antibiotics.

Ear infections in children, for instance, can be caused by three common bacteria – Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenza, and Moraxella catarrhalis. Of these, only the first is covered by Amoxicillin. The others tend to go away without intervention.  Regardless, watchful waiting is encouraged in all mild cases.  Of course, if a child has a severe infection, particularly in both ears and/or accompanied by a high fever, antibiotics are the order of the day.

In short, antibiotics – though effective – are meant to be used as a last line of defense against bacterial infection, not as a rule of thumb. The more pediatric providers prescribe them, the greater chance there is of an allergic reaction in children, such as rashes; side effects, such as nausea; or the inadvertent creation of an impervious superbug.

Questions? Come and see one of the pediatric specialists at KinderMender. We can diagnose your child’s illness, and help you decide on the best course of action to help them feel better again.

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