When to Use Antibiotics for Your Child

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. They don’t work for illnesses caused by viruses or an allergic reaction. In fact, taking antibiotics for reasons other than a bacterial infection can cause problems. For example, your child may have side effects from the medicine. And if your child really needs an antibiotic, it may not work well.

When antibiotics won’t help your child 

Your child’s healthcare provider won’t usually prescribe an antibiotic for the following conditions. You can help by not asking for antibiotics if your child has: 

  • A cold. This type of illness is caused by a virus. Your child may have a runny nose, stuffed-up nose, sneezing, coughing, headache, mild body aches, and low fever. Nasal mucus may be white, green, or yellow. A cold gets better on its own in a few days to a week.

  • The flu (influenza). This is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. The flu usually goes away on its own in a week or so. Your child may have fever, body aches, sore throat, and fatigue.

  • Bronchitis. This is an infection in the lungs most often caused by a virus. Your child may have coughing, phlegm, body aches, and a low fever. A common type of bronchitis is known as a chest cold (acute bronchitis). This often happens after a respiratory infection like a common cold. Bronchitis can take weeks to go away, but antibiotics usually don’t help.

  • Most sore throats. Sore throats are most often caused by viruses. It may feel scratchy or achy, and it may hurt to swallow. Your child may also have a low fever and body aches. A sore throat usually gets better in a few days.

  • Most ear infections. An ear infection may be caused by a virus or bacteria. It causes pain in the ear. A young child may pull at his or her ear. Antibiotics usually don’t help, and the infection goes away on its own.

  • Most sinus infections (sinusitis). This kind of infection causes sinus pain and swelling, and a runny nose. In most cases, sinusitis goes away on its own, and antibiotics don’t make recovery quicker.

  • Allergic rhinitis. This is a set of symptoms caused by an allergic reaction. Your child may have sneezing, a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, or a sore throat. Allergies are not treated with antibiotics.

  • Low fever. A mild fever that’s less than 100.4°F (38°C) most likely doesn’t need treatment with antibiotics. 

When antibiotics can help your child 

Antibiotics can be used to treat:                                                   

  • Strep throat. This is a throat infectioncaused by a certain type of bacteria. Symptoms of strep throat include a sore throat, white patches on the tonsils, red spots on the roof of the mouth, fever, body aches, and nausea and vomiting. Strep throat needs to first be confirmed with a test called a throat culture.

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI). This is a bacterial infection of the bladder and the tube that takes urine out of the body. It can cause burning pain and urine that smells funny or is cloudy or tinted with blood. UTIs are very common. Antibiotics usually help treat these infections.

  • Some ear infections. In some cases, your child’s healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for an ear infection. Your child may need a test to show what’s causing the ear infection.

  • Some sinus infections. In some cases, yourchild’shealthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. He or she may first need to make sure your child’s symptoms aren’t caused by a virus, fungus, allergies, or air pollutants such as smoke. 

Helping your child feel better 

If your child’s infection can’t be treated with antibiotics, you can take other steps to help him or her feel better. Try the remedies below. In general:                                               

  • Let your child rest and sleep as much as needed.

  • Make sure your child drinks water and other clear fluids.

  • Keep your child away from smoke.

  • Use over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen to ease pain or fever, as directed by your child’s healthcare provider. 

To treat sinus pain or nasal congestion: 

  • Put a warm, moist washcloth on your child’s nose and forehead.

  • Use a nasal spray with medicine or saline, as directed by your child’s healthcare provider.

  • Have your child breathe in steam from a hot shower.

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer in your child’s room.

  • Remove nasal congestion with a rubber suction bulb, if your child is young. 

To quiet a cough: 

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer in your child’s room.

  • Have your child breathe in steam from a hot shower.

  • Give an older child cough lozenges. Don’t give lozenges to a young child.

  • Give your child honey if he or she is older than 1 year. 

To sooth a sore throat: 

  • Give your child ice chips or popsicles to suck on.

  • Give an older child throat lozenges. Don’t give lozenges to a young child.

  • Use a sore throat spray on your child’s throat.

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer in your child’s room.

  • Have your child gargle with saltwater.

  • Have your child drink warm liquids. 

To ease ear pain: 

  • Hold a warm, moist washcloth on your child’s ear for 10 minutes at a time. 


When to call your child's healthcare provider 

Call your child’s healthcare provider if your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever. Also contact the healthcare provider if your child has any of these: 

  • Symptoms that get worse

  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days

  • Trouble breathing

  • No interest in eating

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Blood or pus from ears or in saliva or phlegm

  • Fever with rash

  • Temperature higher than 100.4°F (38°C)

  • Signs of dehydration, such as dry diapers, no tears, dry mouth, or weakness

  • Excess drooling in a young child