Can you imagine a day when you take your child to the doctor only to learn that the antibiotic needed for your baby’s illness no longer works? There may come a time when the antibiotics that we have used for years to treat everything from simple ear or throat infections to life-threatening infections are no longer effective. It is a scary thought, but a real and current one.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s biggest public health problems. Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. Since their first use in the 1940s, antibiotics have dramatically transformed medical care by decreasing complications and death from bacterial infections; however, their increased use has contributed to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance. Even though antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon – bacteria change in some way that reduces the ability of antibiotics to kill them – and can occur without human action, the repeated and improper use of antibiotics is fueling antibiotic resistance at an alarming rate.
Sometimes, as concerned parents, we are part of the problem. Mom and Dad may insist that the pediatrician provide an antibiotic prescription for their child’s common cold, ear infection or sore throat. However, most of these infections are actually caused by viruses that can’t be killed by antibiotics, and because you’ve now given your child an unnecessary antibiotic, sensitive bacteria are destroyed, leaving the antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow and multiply.
Not only can improper use of antibiotics impact your own resistance, but you can pass on antibiotic resistance to others, including your kids. People pass good and bad bacteria to others without even knowing it, by sneezing, coughing or contact with unwashed hands. In this way, antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers.
The spread of antibiotic resistance has increased throughout our communities. Treating infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is difficult, especially for the sickest among us. Infections caused by resistant bacteria often fail to respond to the standard treatment, requiring newer and more expensive therapies. Unfortunately, very few new antibiotics are being developed or are currently available to combat these infections.
Though this is an increasing problem for the average person, it’s amplified for patients undergoing surgery, organ or bone marrow transplantation or cancer therapy. Infections in these high-risk individuals can result in prolonged illness, longer hospital stays, a greater risk of death and higher healthcare costs. This places a burden on the healthcare system, as well as a significant financial and emotional burden on affected families.
Smart use of antibiotics is the key to controlling the spread of antibiotic resistance. If your healthcare provider determines that your child does not have a bacterial infection but is suffering from symptoms caused by a virus or an allergy, ask about other ways to help relieve symptoms. Antibiotics aren’t for the cold, the flu or even most ear infections and sore throats.
When antibiotics are recommended by the pediatrician, administer them to your child exactly as prescribed. Do not skip doses of antibiotics, and complete the entire prescribed course. Skipping doses and stopping treatment too soon may leave behind bacteria that could cause your child to become re-infected.
You should not save antibiotics for a future illness. Yes, your child will be sick again, but the small amount of antibiotic left over from a previous sickness will do nothing to prevent a new infection and could increase your child’s resistance to antibiotics. Flushing leftover antibiotics can also spread resistance into the environment. Instead, find a pharmacy with a medication take-back program for safe elimination. Finally, only take antibiotics that were prescribed for you, and do not share antibiotics with others.
Though those of us who both care for children and work in clinical research are hopeful that we will find new ways to outsmart the smart bacteria, it’s important to emphasize some old-fashioned techniques to prevent illness. Simply washing our hands – well and often – prevents the passage of disease, including drug-resistant bacteria. And keeping immunizations up to date helps our own children and entire communities. Both preventive measures will help your child stay happy and healthy.
Aida Chaparro, M.D., is assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Matthew Thomas, M.D., is a Fellow in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial Hospital. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.