We’ve all been on antibiotics at some point in our lives, and most parents have given their children antibiotics by the time they go to school. However, physicians are warning that we can no longer afford to be so cavalier about the drugs we once thought were all but harmless bacteria killers. That’s because more and more bacteria are adapting to evade the effects of antibiotics.

“Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic,” explains Dr. Divya Chauhan, a family physician at Creve Coeur Family Medicine and on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital. “It occurs when bacteria change and are able to reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs. This causes bacteria to survive and multiply, causing more harm. Repeated and improper use of antibiotics are the primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.”

That repeated and improper use is largely due to the common misconception that antibiotics are a cure-all for almost any childhood sniffle, ear infection or cough. “Often the illness is a virus, and an antibiotic will do nothing to help these symptoms,” says Dr. Colleen Seematter, a Mercy Clinic pediatrician. “It is helpful that people understand this so they don't call their doctor two days into a cold for an antibiotic, although your doctor is the best one to make this decision based on symptoms. Some bacterial infections may require treatment sooner, but most people can and should try to wait out your average cold to see if it will improve on its own.”

Even the dreaded pediatric ear infection is not always a candidate for antibiotic treatment. “Seeing redness or a child having fluid behind the eardrum to diagnose an ear infection has probably led to over-prescribing antibiotics,” Seematter notes. “Now, there are newer, more stringent criteria just released.” The newest American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation calls on physicians to note a bulging eardrum in the infected patient in order to prescribe antibiotics, instead of prescribing simply due to redness or fluid behind the eardrum.

Another common problem is the improper use of antibiotics. For instance, Chauhan warns against taking antibiotics prescribed for a family member. “The best antibiotic for you depends on the illness you have,” she says. “An antibiotic prescribed for someone else might not work for you and may actually make your illness worse. Also, when taking an antibiotic, it is best to take the prescribed doses. Stopping the medication early means the infection is not fully eliminated, and it could make you sicker.”

Perhaps the best advice is to avoid the need for antibiotics altogether by avoiding infection in the first place. Thorough hand-washing and getting recommended vaccines can help decrease illness so you don’t think you need an antibiotic at all.

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