When the Best Medication for Kids Is No Medication at All

Many children are prescribed antibiotics when they just don't need them.

February 25, 2010, 3:16 PM

Feb. 25, 2010 — -- If you ask long enough for antibiotics for your children's viral infections, chances are your doctor might just prescribe them -- even though the doctor knows antibiotics won't help your child get better.

Antibiotics don't work for viruses and may put a child at risk for side effects, said Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser, but many times children receive the medication anyway.

Physicians will prescribe antibiotics for viral infections 62 percent of the time when asked by a patient, and only 7 percent of the time when they think a patient does not want it, according to a 1999 study published in Pediatrics.

Common scenarios where antibiotics are unnecessarily prescribed to children include some sinus infections, coughs and some ear infections, doctors told ABCNews.com.

Dr. Thomas Schwenk, chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan medical school, said parents persist with their child's doctor when they're looking to heal their ailing child from the common cold.

"Most of the time when patients ask for antibiotics, it is simply their way of asking for help," said Schwenk.

Asking for the wrong treatment may not be a one-time deal. Many times, the inappropriate use of antibiotics leads patients to ask for antibiotics more often, said Schwenk. If a child suffers from a cold for a week, then receives an antibiotic and gets better in a few days, a parent may attribute their child's recovery to antibiotics, even though the child would have recovered naturally, he said.

More than 142,000 people are rushed to the emergency room each year from adverse reactions to antibiotics, according to a 2008 article in Clinical Infectious Diseases, and an estimated 70,000 of those cases may be a result of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.

Children are more likely to suffer side effects such as diarrhea and abdominal pain from antibiotics.

In addition, using antibiotics for ear infections may increase the likelihood of getting another ear infection, according to a recent British Medical Journal study.

Although many doctors are met with resistance when refusing to prescribe antibiotics, some have adopted tactics to withstand the heat.

Dr. John Messmer, an associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine, said he treats parents' request for antibiotics as an opportunity to educate them about when the treatment is appropriate.

"From time to time, I must give a more detailed teaching effort," said Messmer. "It takes time and makes me run late, but even after more than 30 years in practice I would rather take a few minutes to explain it."

According to Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, while parents in her practice would frequently request antibiotics in the 1990s, today they are much more educated on the topic and do not want the prescription unless it's absolutely necessary.

"I'll suggest things a parent can do to help a child feel better while his body is fighting off the infection on its own, and honestly, that's usually just what the parent wants -- something they can do to help," said Brown.

When antibiotics do become necessary for bacterial infections, the treatment may not work for some children who have used the medication too often.

While antibiotics are needed to treat bacterial infections, drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem worldwide.

"I have to explain [to parents] that we might cause them harm by causing them to have resistant germs that are harder to treat at a later time," said Messmer.

Instead of asking for doctors to reach for the prescription pad to treat a virus, Brown suggested giving your pediatrician as much information about your child's illness as possible.

"Ask your doctor what to expect for the duration of the illness and, 'What can I do to make my child feel better for the illness?'" said Brown. "'What should I be looking out for that means that my child may be getting worse?'"

"I like to tell parents to ask what they can do to help their child feel better sooner, rather than asking for an antibiotic," said Besser.

"It's all in the way that you ask the question," said Brown. "Asking for more information is a good start."

For more information on antibiotics and its uses, go to: www.cdc.gov/getsmart

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