You’re sick? No problem! I had the same thing — and I have some extra pills. Why don’t you just take mine…
It’s a common refrain, and a recent study found up to 66% of some demographics have used antibiotics without a prescription. There can be serious dangers of nonprescription antibiotic use. And what’s worse? Researchers found many parents were offering these drugs to their children.
The study involved the efforts of faculty from Baylor College of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania. Also involved were the Department of Family and Community Medicine of Baylor College of Medicine, the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety. These researchers reviewed 31 articles dating back to 2000 and published their findings in the Annals of Medicine.
Here’s what they found and why parents need to be concerned.
Dangers of Nonprescription Antibiotic Use in Children
Parents want to care for their sick child, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, antibiotics were created to treat bacterial infections, and many parents use them to treat viral infections. Common ones include the cold or bronchitis. Unfortunately, not only do antibiotics not treat viral infections, but there are unintended side effects that can put children at risk.
“Antibiotics can, unfortunately, kill off a lot of the helpful bacteria that are normally in a child’s body — such as those in the gut — and essential to normal health,” George Germanos, MD, MPH, a postdoctoral research fellow at Baylor College of Medicine tells Parentology. “This community of healthy bacteria is called the microbiome. A disrupted microbiome can allow harmful bacteria to overgrow and cause harm.”
Germanos also warns that with continued use, the bacteria in a child’s gut could become resistant to that antibiotic. This resistance may then make the child susceptible to future infections, which poses a risk to not just that specific child but other members of the family.
The Bigger Problem
Antibiotics heralded a new era in winning the war against potentially fatal bacterial infections. Without them — or without existing antibiotics being effective — medicine will have to fight an uphill battle once more.
Many believe that battle has already begun. The CDC has frequently addressed the dangers of nonprescription antibiotic use. It reports that two million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year; at least 23,000 of these cases are fatal.
Larissa Grigoryan, MD, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, commented on this growing problem. “The bacteria intended as the target of antibiotics are very clever, and quickly develop creative ways to neutralize these drugs and render them ineffective. This is known as antibiotic resistance, and we frequently refer to these resistant bacteria as ‘superbugs’ … [These] strains that are resistant to nearly all known antibiotics is becoming more and more common.”
So what can parents do to protect their children from the dangers of nonprescription antibiotic use? Barbara Wells Trautner, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine and of surgery and director of clinical research for the Department of Surgery, provides the answer.
“[W]hat may seem like a mild cold may be something more serious requiring immediate medical attention. Your child’s healthcare provider can help you and your child determine whether or not an antibiotic is needed, and if so, which type, at what dose, and for how long. Saving antibiotics from a prior treatment course to give to your child in the future is not a great idea as some antibiotics become harmful as they deteriorate.”
Dangers of Nonprescription Antibiotic Use — Sources
Annals of Medicine: Use of Antibiotics Without a Prescription in the U.S. Population: A Scoping Review
Baylor College of Medicine: The Dangers of Nonprescription Antibiotic Use
Centers for Disease Control, CDC: Be Antibiotics Aware: Smart Use, Best Care
George Germanos, MD, MPH, Baylor College of Medicine
Larissa Grigoryan, MD, Baylor College of Medicine
Barbara Wells Trautner, M.D., Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine