Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital



What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are powerful drugs used to treat certain illnesses. However, antibiotics do not cure everything, and unnecessary antibiotics can even be harmful.

There are two main types of germs that cause most infections. These are viruses and bacteria.

Viruses cause:

Antibiotics cannot kill viruses or help you feel better when you have a virus.

Bacteria cause:

Antibiotics do kill specific bacteria.

Some viruses cause symptoms that resemble bacterial infections, and some bacteria can cause symptoms that resemble viral infections. Your child's doctor can determine what type of illness your child has and recommend the proper type of treatment.

What are resistant bacteria?

Each time you take an antibiotic, bacteria are killed. Sometimes, bacteria-causing infections are already resistant to prescribed antibiotics. Bacteria may also become resistant during treatment of an infection. Resistant bacteria do not respond to the antibiotics and continue to cause infection. A common misconception is that a person's body becomes resistant to specific drugs. However, it is the bacteria, not people, that become resistant to the drugs.

Each time you take or give your child an antibiotic unnecessarily or improperly, you increase the chance of developing drug-resistant bacteria. Therefore, it is critically important to take antibiotics only when necessary. Because of these resistant bacteria, some diseases that used to be easy to treat are now becoming nearly impossible to treat.

Bacteria can develop resistance to certain medications.

Picture of a physician examining a young boy

When are antibiotics needed?

This complicated question, which should be answered by your child's doctor, depends on the specific diagnosis. For example, there are several types of ear infections--most need antibiotics, but some do not. Most cases of sore throat are caused by viruses. One kind, strep throat, diagnosed by a laboratory test, requires antibiotics.

Common viral infections, like coughs or a cold, can sometimes become complicated and a bacterial infection can develop. However, treating viral infections with antibiotics in order to prevent bacterial infections is not recommended because of the risk of producing bacterial resistance.

Remember that taking antibiotics appropriately and making sure your child receives the proper immunizations will help prevent having to take more dangerous and more costly medications. Consult your child's doctor for more information.

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