Cold & Flu Season – Does Your Child Need Antibiotics? - Nemours Blog


Cold & Flu Season – Does Your Child Need Antibiotics?

Cold & Flu Season – Does Your Child Need Antibiotics? , Powered by Nemours Children's Health System

It’s that time of year – your kids come home from school or their extra-curricular activities and show signs or complain of a sore throat, cough, and/or a runny nose. Are antibiotics in order? The answer may surprise you!

Viruses vs. Bacterial Infections

To best understand whether your child needs antibiotics, it’s helpful to know the difference between viruses and bacteria, which are the two major types of germs that cause sickness. Although certain bacteria and viruses cause diseases with similar symptoms, the ways these two organisms multiply and spread illness are different.

Antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses.

  • Bacteria are living organisms that exist as single cells. They can live in all types of environments, from extreme cold to extreme heat. They’re everywhere and most don’t cause any harm. In some cases they may actually be helpful, like when they live in your intestines and help digest food. The bacteria that are harmful cause illness by invading parts of the body, multiplying, and interfering with the normal workings of your body.

When you have a bacterial infection, antibiotics are needed. They work to kill the living bacteria by stopping their growth and reproduction.

Examples of Bacterial Infections:

  • Strep throat
  • Urinary Tract Infection
  • Swimmer’s Ear
  • MRSA
  • Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and can’t exist on their own. Since they need living hosts like you or your kids to reproduce, they are not thought of as living. If there is nothing living to attach itself to, a virus can’t survive. Your body’s immune system can fight off some viruses before they cause an illness, but others (like those nasty winter common colds) just have to run their course.

Examples of Viral Infections:

  • Flu
  • Common Cold
  • Bronchitis
  • Mononucleosis
  • Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease

In some cases, it may be hard to figure out whether a bacteria or a virus is causing your kid’s symptoms. Many ailments like pneumonia, ear infection, pink eye, and diarrhea can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. Your health care provider will discuss treatment with you should your child have one of these illnesses.

The Ins & Outs of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are one of the greatest advances in medicine. But according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), each year in the U.S., 47 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions are written in doctor’s offices, emergency rooms, and hospital-based clinics.

When you or your kids frequently or inappropriately use antibiotics, it can cause bacteria or other microbes to change so antibiotics won’t work to fight them. This is called bacterial resistance or antibiotic resistance. When you develop this resistance, these bacteria require higher doses of medicine or stronger antibiotics. Because of overuse, certain bacteria have become resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics available today.

In addition to antibiotic resistance, overusing antibiotics can lead to other problems. Antibiotics could possibly kill the good bacteria that help keep your body healthy. Your child could develop diarrhea due to a lack of good bacteria that help digest food properly. In some cases, bad bacteria, like Clostridium difficile (or C diff), may overgrow and cause infections.

Parents should keep in mind that taking antibiotics for viral infections, such as colds, flu, most sore throats, and bronchitis:

  • Will not cure the infection
  • Will not keep other people from getting sick
  • Will not help you or your child feel better
  • May cause unnecessary side effects
  • May contribute to antibiotic resistance

Plus, when kids take antibiotics they run the risk of side-effects, such as stomach upset and diarrhea or even an allergic reaction. To combat antibiotic resistance and avoid bad reactions, we should use them only when needed and, if needed, use them correctly.

If your doctor determines that your child has a bacterial infection and prescribes antibiotics, here are some good tips:

  • Make sure your child does not miss or skip doses.
  • Your child should not stop taking the antibiotics early unless their doctor directs them to do so.
  • Do not save any of the antibiotics for the next time you or your child gets sick.
  • Never give your child antibiotics prescribed for you or someone else. The antibiotic may not be right for their illness or may be the wrong dose. If they take the wrong medicine, it could delay treatment and allow the bacteria to grow.

Treating Viruses

Symptom relief is likely the best treatment if your child has a virus. Your kids should get some relief if they do the following:

  • Get extra rest
  • Drink lots of liquids
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion
  • Soothe throats with crushed ice, popsicles, or lozenges. (Remember – children under age 5 shouldn’t use throat lozenges.)
  • Use honey to relieve cough. Ask your doctor how much to give. (Do not give honey to an infant under one year of age.)

If your child is diagnosed with the flu, prescription flu antiviral medicines may be prescribed.

Bacteria and Virus Prevention

Talk to your kids about simple steps they can take to prevent the spread of infections. Encourage them to wash their hands, make sure they are up-to-date with immunizations and vaccines, and if they’re sick, make sure they stay home from school.

This article originally ran in The News Journal 

Learn More

The Danger of Antibiotic Use (

Kate Cronan, MD

Dr. Cronan is a pediatric emergency attending physician at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del., and a medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health Media.