When your child is sick, you want to do everything you can to make them feel better. Sometimes, antibiotics are the answer. Sometimes, however, they can cause more harm than good.

“When people come to see us, they are often disappointed when we say, ‘Gosh, I’m so sorry, I think what you have is viral. I can’t give you antibiotics.’ The reason is that antibiotics won’t help,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

Antibiotics kill bacteria. While these drugs can be lifesaving, they don’t work the same way when someone is ill due to a virus. When antibiotics are misused, the medicine becomes less effective over time, and bacteria becomes resistant. Meaning, an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection could be ineffective when you need it most. That’s why, physicians at Eugene Pediatric Associates do a thorough evaluation before prescribing antibiotics.

Ear infections
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least half of all ear infections will resolve without antibiotics. To help ease your child’s pain, Dr. Bradshaw recommends applying a warm or cool compress just below the ear. Children over 6 months old can be given an age-appropriate dose of Advil, Motrin or Ibuprofen, as well.

“They’re all the same thing. They last 6-8 hours, they’re great for pain and swelling — as with an ear infection — and they’re very good for fever,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

Sore throat
More than 80% of sore throats are caused by a virus, not bacteria, and should not be treated with antibiotics. Strep throat, however, is caused by bacteria. Symptoms of strep throat include fever, redness and trouble swallowing. But most children with those symptoms do not have strep throat, so a strep test is often ordered to determine if an antibiotic is needed.

Colds and coughs
Colds, influenza and other respiratory infections are caused by viruses. Unfortunately, these illnesses just need to play out, but there are things you can do to help relieve symptoms:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.

“For children over the age of 3 months, you can use Vicks BabyRub on their chest to help relieve coughing — that’s shown to be more effective than any over-the-counter cough medicine,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

If your child is not getting better, or gets better and then worse again, be sure to follow up with your doctor.

“If your kid is not getting better as your doctor expected, call and go back in. We’re seeing a lot of kids who have persistent viruses, and then some other illness stacks on, so that’s why we always want to reevaluate,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for your child, be sure to use them appropriately by following these steps:

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

Taking unnecessary antibiotics that were prescribed for a previous illness can allow bacteria to multiply and increases the risk that your child will become resistant to antibiotics down the road, when they need them.