I've been battling my annual cold that morphs into a nagging cough. Although I wish could take antibiotics and be done with it, I know they won't really have any effect on the virus that made me sick. Similarly, whenever my daughter has a bad sore throat and I take her to the doctor, I admit that I kinda hope she does have strep throat—because then we'll get a treatment that works and she'll be healthy enough to go back to school in 24 hours.
However, pediatricians prescribe more than 11 million unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics each year for children and teens who have viral ear and upper respiratory infections, according to a study from the University of Utah. It's not because they're bad doctors, but more likely because parents are eager to give their kids antibiotics just in case they might help.
The problem, of course, is that they can also cause harm: Overuse of antibiotics has led to a scary increase in antibiotic resistance. One way this may happen: When you take antibiotics for a viral infection, the antibiotic attacks other (healthy) bacteria in your body, and can promote antibiotic-resistant properties that are then shared with other bacteria, say experts at the Mayo Clinic. Another factor: Not finishing an entire course of prescribed antibiotics. Let's say your kid does have a bacterial infection but feels better on day 4 and hates the taste of the medicine. You might figure she doesn't need to take it for a week. But this can leave lingering bacteria that become stronger and multiply.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause at least 2 million illnesses each year and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. (The situation is even more serious in other countries; this article about the epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections in newborns in India is heartbreaking.) Last fall, the federal government launched a new national strategy to combat resistance, which includes tracking infections to try to slowing their spread, and also supporting research. Part of the problem is that developing new types of antibiotics has not been a priority for drug companies.
I was grateful to read the news that smart scientists are doing the nitty-gritty research needed to dig up—literally—new antibiotics. As reported in the journal Nature, researchers at Northeastern University have discovered a new way to extract antibiotics from bacteria that live in dirt. Animal studies suggest that that the novel antibiotic they found has a unique ability to resist resistance.
For now, if you or your kids have a cold, home remedies and TLC are your best bet. (My new favorite tea is Stash Lemon Ginger.) If a cold lasts longer than two weeks, it makes sense to check in with your doctor because it might be caused by something else. In fact, a chronic cough is one of the most common reasons why children see the doctor.
Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two daughters who've frequently had coughs, croup, and strep throat, but not one ear infection. You can follow her on Twitter @ddebrovner.
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