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Antibiotics – What Do They Really Do?

AntibioticsRunny noses, sore throats, upset tummies, coughs, wheezing chests and earaches – have all got one thing in common. They are among the most common illnesses suffered by pre-schoolers. These ailments force many exasperated parents to spend hours in paediatrician’s waiting rooms, wishing that there was a miraculous cure for all and that the latest bout of flu or the nasty tummy bug could be put to rest – for good. 

Unfortunately, there is no such miracle cure and just as the very last spoonful of strawberry-tasting antibiotics is swallowed by the tiny tot – the troubling symptoms start all over again (or so it seems). With so many visits to the doctor’s room, most moms know about antibiotics and if they have a toddler, they have in all probability been handed a prescription for a course of antibiotics. The big question is – what are these -wonder drugs’ and what do antibiotics actually do?

Antibiotics are used to treat infections, and are used as a treatment for life-threatening infectious diseases. What many people may not know is that if antibiotics are not used in the right way, they will do more harm than good and so parents are urged to become antibiotic-wise and understand when antibiotics are useful and when they aren’t.


Treatment for all infections?

Antibiotics will only be effective against infections that have been caused by bacteria, fungi and certain parasites. Viral infections or infections caused by viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics and viruses are the origins of common colds, influenza, most coughs and sore throats. This means that there is no point or reason for a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for these kinds of viral sicknesses.

Treating coughs or bronchitis – in most cases, viruses are almost always the cause for these types of illnesses. However, should the symptoms linger, it may be an indication that bacteria is the root cause for both and at this time, a doctor could prescribe an antibiotic.

Sore throats – by and large, viruses cause painful throats and antibiotics are not required and are ineffective. However if the strep throat has been diagnosed as caused by bacteria, a course of antibiotics is recommended.

Ear infections – since there are so many different types of ear infections, antibiotics can be used to treat some but not all ear infections and a doctor will determine which treatment course to take.

Sinus infections – in most cases, antibiotics will be used as a treatment for sinus infections. However, a runny nose with yellow or green discharge is not always a sign that the child requires an antibiotic. Again, the doctor will need to determine if the infection is either bacterial or viral.


How they work

Antibiotics can eliminate bacteria. When bacteria are able to slip past the immune system and the bacterium begins reproducing in the body, disease is caused. By killing the bacteria, the disease is eliminated. The reason why antibiotics do not work on viruses is that viruses are, philosophy aside, not alive. Bacteria is a living, reproducing life form while a virus simply injects its DNA into a living cell and gets the injected cell to start reproducing more of the viral DNA, on its behalf. Since the virus is not living, the antibiotic is not able to destroy it and as such, the drug is futile at eradicating viruses.


Important facts about antibiotics

Many concerned parents believe that some doctors tend to prescribe antibiotics too easily and they worry that their child is exposed to unnecessary risks. This worry is not ill-founded and when antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily, it may lead to antibiotic resistance. This is a common problem and arises when the bacteria in the body evolve to such an extent that the antibiotics become ineffective. In addition, resistance caused by the over-use of antibiotics is one reason for the resistance, as the resistance could also be due to a child (or a patient) not completing the full course of the antibiotics. In this case, the bacteria remain alive and continue to multiply at a rapid rate. The bacteria can multiply and become immune to antibiotics.

If doctors have prescribed a course of antibiotics, one of the worst things that can be done is not to finish the course. Taking a few spoonfuls of the antibiotics is usually enough to wipe out only the most vulnerable of the bacteria, and this means that the strong bacterium is able to survive and reproduce. If, after a few days, a child looks and feels well, do not stop the course. More than just being able to survive, the lingering bacterium has the ability to change their structure and as such, any future antibiotics taken will be useless against the mutated bacteria.

It is interesting to note that studies have indicated that children who are given broad-spectrum antibiotics before their second birthdays are three times more likely to develop asthma than children who are not exposed to the broad-spectrum antibiotics.


Life before antibiotics

Since the first antibiotic was used to treat bacterial infections in the early 1920s, the -wonder drug’ has been credited as being one of the greatest lifesavers of our times. Since it was first discovered (accidentally by Alexander Fleming) antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Before penicillin was discovered, infections resulted in countless deaths. In the 1900s, the three top causes of premature deaths were pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), diarrhoea and enteritis. However even Fleming himself warned about the use of penicillin (or antibiotics), when he cautioned the medical fraternity not to use penicillin unless a thorough and proper diagnosis was made. He also warned that if it were to be used, it was important not to use too little, or for a period that was too short, as these were the optimal conditions in which bacterial resistance to antibiotics develops.


Fight fire with fire

It’s important to remember that infections can be prevented and that the need for a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic can be reduced. By practicing good hygiene and by actively encouraging children to wash their hands with soap and warm water at all times – especially after going to the toilet, playing with the family pet, or in the sandpit, and certainly before tucking into a snack or meal.

– Kathy


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