Sorry, It’s “Just” a Virus (PedPathForParents)-Why Doesn’t My Child Need an Antibiotic?

2 Feb
Wait! They may not need it after all!

Wait! They may not need it after all!

Have you ever wondered why you don’t need antibiotics for a viral infection?

Would it hurt anything if your doctor went ahead and prescribed one anyway, “just in case”?

What is a virus?

Viruses are small organisms that (unlike bacteria) cannot live on their own.  They can only live inside the cells of another organism (plant or animal).

How does my child get a virus?

Viruses can be spread by many different routes…

  • Blood sucking insects (mosquitoes-West Nile Virus)
  • Coughing or sneezing (flu, colds)
  • Fecal-oral transmission (eating poop, hopefully indirectly…see post on stomach viruses)

Why doesn’t my child need an antibiotic when they have a virus?

The main reason…they don’t work.

Antibiotics are designed and discovered because they work on specific parts of bacteria.  They are usually made to work on the cell wall or membrane that surrounds the bacteria.  They can also work to block a bacteria’s ability to make proteins or DNA.

Because viruses do not live on their own, they have very different coverings and because they rely on the cell to reproduce themselves, the ways in which antibiotics work do not affect viruses.

So, the next time you bring your child to me and wonder why I don’t give you an antibiotic, it’s because I don’t think it will work.  Sometimes, I feel like I get this look that a family thinks I’m withholding the magic bullet from them that would suddenly make their child better.  Believe me, I’m not.  I hate to see your child suffering almost as much as my own and I have no desire or incentive to prolong that in any way.

Why don’t we start an antibiotic, just in case?  What could happen?

Allergic reactions can be simple, like simple rashes, but they can progress to difficulty breathing and even death.  Severe allergic reactions like this are very rare but if there is any risk and the treatment does not benefit your child, why take the risk?

Diarrhea with antibiotics can be simple with watery, more frequent stools.  Or, it can be worse with another type of infection called c. dificile that leads to profuse “foul-smelling,” bloody or mucousy stools that requires another type of antibiotic to treat that infection.  Ask anyone who’s experienced it in the past, I’m sure they’ll tell you, “No thanks.”

Another problem with overuse of antibiotics is antibiotic resistance.  This is a problem for the community as a whole.  We have begun to see more and more “super-bugs” that are difficult to treat because they have been exposed to antibiotics and have developed ways to fight off the attacks of antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance is not just a problem for the community, it is also a problem for your child.  In a child with recurrent ear infections or sinus infections, I do not like to repeat antibiotics that have been used within a month.  As we increase in strength on the antibiotic pathway, we increase the risk of side effects.  So, using antibiotics when they are not necessary only adds more to this problem.


  • Viruses are different from bacteria.
  • Because they are different, antibiotics do not work on viruses.
  • Overuse of antibiotics increases risk of side effects and antibiotic resistance.

One Response to “Sorry, It’s “Just” a Virus (PedPathForParents)-Why Doesn’t My Child Need an Antibiotic?”


  1. What I learned as a {pediatric resident}’s wife: Antibiotics | Doc J Smitty's Wife - September 17, 2013

    […] If you have any questions about why you do or do not need antibiotics, see Justin’s post here. If you’re a parent who is trying to figure out if your baby really needs medicine or not, ask! […]

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