Find out in this article written for the Health Promotion Board (HPB) by Dr Kam Kai-Qian, Consultant from the Infectious Disease Service Department of Paediatric Medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Antibiotics are medicine typically prescribed by a medical doctor that is used to treat bacterial infections in your child. It is important to note, however, that antibiotics do not work against viral infections and its overuse can bring more harm than good in a young child.

What Are Infections?

Infections in young children are generally caused by 2 types of germs: bacteria and viruses, of which viral infection is the most common. The symptoms of viral infections such as flu or cold are fever, sore throat, runny nose and cough. Greenish or yellowish mucous from the nose or phlegm sometimes appear during viral infection and does not necessarily indicate the presence of bacterial infections. Additionally, viruses can also lead to vomiting and diarrhoea in certain cases.

On the other hand, bacterial infections include urinary tract, lung and sinus infection.

The Right Time To Use Antibiotics

While antibiotics can treat bacterial infections by halting the reproduction of the bacteria, they do not work on viral infections nor do they prevent bacterial infections. Most childhood infections that are caused by viruses do not require antibiotics and do not help the child recover more quickly.

However, if your child is unwell and you are worried about a bacterial infection, it is advisable to bring your child to see a doctor. The doctor will assess your child’s condition and advise if antibiotics are required after evaluating the symptoms and performing a physical examination on your child. When antibiotics are administered by doctors, they will determine the right dosage, indication and duration of use.

Side Effects Of Antibiotics Usage

The side effects of antibiotics usage include diarrhoea, nausea, stomach ache, loss of appetite, rashes and allergic reactions. Symptoms of allergic reaction may include generalized rash, facial, lip or eye swelling and even difficulty breathing in severe cases.

Frequent intake of antibiotics may even cause a build-up of resistant bacteria which cannot be killed by usual antibiotics. This can escalate to a point where limited “stronger” antibiotics might be needed to treat these resistant bacteria and these antibiotics may lead to some serious side effects.

Imagine a situation where such antibiotics are injected into your child through the veins into the bloodstream (intravenous antibiotics). Admission to the hospital becomes a necessity for the duration of treatment. Moreover, these resistant bacteria can also be transmitted to other children and adults, leading to infections in other people.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antibiotics fall under the umbrella of “antimicrobials”. They are medicines that treat infections in humans, animals and plants. The problem occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi evolve over time and no longer react to such medications, making infections difficult to treat.

Antimicrobial resistance or AMR is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The emergence and global spread of drug-resistant pathogens or multi- and pan-resistant ‘superbugs’ is especially alarming and poses a risk to us all.

The dangers cannot be underestimated as they include infections which are more resistant to treatment and may lead to severe illness or death. This can be linked back to the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials like antibiotics.

Therefore, it is important to educate oneself on the immediate threat posed by the emergence of antimicrobial resistance and understand that antibiotics should only be used when prescribed by the doctor, and only when your child is diagnosed to have a bacterial infection.

As parents, it is important to emphasise good hand hygiene and prioritise vaccinations for your children to decrease the chance of bacterial or viral infection. This will thereby reduce unnecessary antibiotic usage and risk of antimicrobial resistance.

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