New research finds that drugs used to treat common infections in children and babies are no longer effective in large parts of the world.

That’s due to high rates of antibiotic resistance—when germs find ways to outsmart medicines that are designed to kill them.

Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says antibiotics can be a powerful tool in fighting bacterial infections, but there’s a danger in over-prescribing them.

“Bacteria are very cagey,” she says. “They can develop tricks and evolve ways to not be thwarted by antibiotics. What that means is it’s harder for your doctor to treat routine infections with the antibiotics that we have, because they’ve been used so much that the bacteria have outsmarted those antibiotics.”

Researchers at the University of Sydney recently found that many antibiotics recommended by the World Health Organization had less than 50% effectiveness in treating childhood infections, highlighting the need for updated global guidelines. The WHO now ranks antibiotic resistance among the top 10 global public health threats.

Bacteria or virus?
It can be difficult to determine when illnesses are caused by bacteria or viruses, and the decision of whether or not to use an antibiotic can be complicated. There are tests for some viruses, but not for others.

“It’s a two-way conversation between you and your doctor to figure out: Is this infection one that I need an antibiotic for, or is this possibly viral and it won’t respond to antibiotics?” Dr. Bradshaw says. “So, using them would be a waste and actually would increase my bacteria in my body’s resistance to that particular drug. Are there other things that I could do to help my kid not be in pain or to help move along the process of getting well?”

Dr. Bradshaw says there are national guidelines for medical providers to help determine when to prescribe antibiotics.

“So, for example, treating ear infections, there’s a national algorithm for when to use an antibiotic and if so, which antibiotic,” she says. “Starting with the least broad, the least strong, and working down from there.”

Administering antibiotics
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for your child, be sure to follow these steps:

  • Give the medicine exactly as directed.
  • Don’t skip doses or stop the medicine early, even if your child is feeling better.
  • And do not save leftover antibiotics to treat another illness later.

If antibiotics are necessary, proper treatment followed by a focus on prevention will help ensure your child’s health, Dr. Bradshaw says. “Because what we want to do is, when we need antibiotics, use them correctly, and then hopefully get completely well and then do things that help boost our kid’s immune system so that they don’t get sick as often.”