What Is Antibiotic Overuse? Antibiotic overuse is when antibiotics are used when they're not needed. Antibiotics are one of the great advances in medicine. But overprescribing them has led to resistant bacteria (bacteria that are harder to treat). Some germs that were once very responsive to antibiotics have become more and more resistant. This can cause more serious infections, such as pneumococcal infections (pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and meningitis), skin infections, and tuberculosis. What Do Antibiotics Treat? Two major types of germs can make people sick: bacteria and viruses. They can cause diseases with similar symptoms, but they multiply and spread illness differently: Bacteria are living organisms existing as single cells. Bacteria are everywhere and most don't cause any harm, and in some cases are beneficial. But some bacteria are harmful and cause illness by invading the body, multiplying, and interfering with normal body processes.Antibiotics work against bacteria because they kill these living organisms by stopping their growth and reproduction. Viruses, on the other hand, are not alive. Viruses grow and reproduce only after they've invaded other living cells. The body's immune system can fight off some viruses before they cause illness, but others (like colds) must simply run their course. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. Why Are Antibiotics Overprescribed? Doctors prescribe antibiotics for different reasons. Sometimes they prescribe them when they're not sure if an illness is caused by bacteria or a virus or are waiting for test results. So, some patients might expect a prescription for an antibitoic and even ask their doctor for it. For example, strep throat is a bacterial infection, but most sore throats are due to viruses, allergies, or other things that antibiotics cannot treat. But many people with a sore throat will go to a health care provider expecting — and getting — a prescription for antibiotics that they do not need. What Happens When Antibiotics Are Overused? Taking antibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses doesn't work — and it can create bacteria that are harder to kill. Taking antibiotics too often or for the wrong reasons can change bacteria so much that antibiotics don't work against them. This is called bacterial resistance or antibiotic resistance. Some bacteria are now resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics available. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it "one of the world's most pressing public health problems." It's especially a concern in low-income and developing countries. That's because: Health care providers there often lack quick, helpful diagnostic tools that can identify which illnesses are caused by bacteria and which are not. Many of the areas only recently got widespread access to antibiotics. Lack of clean water, poor sanitation, and limited vaccine programs contribute to the infections and illnesses that antibiotics are prescribed for. What Can Parents Do? Every family faces its share of colds, sore throats, and viruses. When you bring your child to the doctor for these illnesses, it's important to not expect a prescription for antibiotics. To lower the risk of bacterial resistance and prevent antibiotic overuse: Ask your doctor if your child's illness is bacterial or viral. Discuss the risks and benefits of antibiotics. If it's a virus, ask about ways to treat symptoms. Don't pressure your doctor to prescribe antibiotics. Let milder illnesses (especially those caused by viruses) run their course. This helps prevent germs from becoming antibiotic-resistant. Antibiotics must be taken for the full amount of time prescribed by the doctor. Otherwise, the infection may come back. Don't let your child take antibiotics longer than prescribed. Do not use leftover antibiotics or save extra antibiotics "for next time." Don't give your child antibiotics that were prescribed for another family member or adult. It's also important to make sure that your kids: are up to date on their immunizations stay home from school when they're sick wash their hands well and often Back to Articles Related Articles Medicines: Using Them Safely Giving kids medicine safely can be complicated. Here's how you can help treat your child's illness while you prevent dangerous reactions. Read More MRSA MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. Simple precautions can help protect your kids from becoming infected. Read More Germs: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Protozoa Germs are the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease. Read More Staph Infections When skin is punctured or broken for any reason, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause an infection. But good hygiene can prevent many staph infections. Learn more. Read More Sinusitis Sinus infections, or sinusitis, are common and easily treated. Read More Fevers Fevers happen when the body's internal "thermostat" raises the body temperature above normal. This is often the body's way of fighting infections. Read More What Medicines Are and What They Do You've taken medicine before. But what is it? Read More Understanding Medicines and What They Do Medicines can cure, stop, or prevent disease; ease symptoms; or help in the diagnosis of illnesses. This article describes different types of medications and offers tips on taking them. Read More Strep Throat Strep throat is a common infection that usually needs to be treated with antibiotics. Find out how to recognize the signs of strep throat and what to expect if you have it. Read More MRSA MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. The good news is that there are some simple ways to protect yourself from being infected. Find out how. Read More Word! Antibiotics These awesome medicines attack bacteria that make you sick. Read More Word! Bacteria If you're feeling crummy, it's probably because nasty bacteria or some other germs have gotten into your body and made you sick. Read More Cellulitis Cellulitis is a skin infection that involves areas of tissue just below the skin's surface. It can affect any part of the body, but it's most common on exposed areas, such as the face, arms, or lower legs. Read More Cellulitis Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and underlying tissues that can affect any area of the body. It begins in an area of broken skin, like a cut or scratch. Read More Impetigo Impetigo is a contagious skin infection that causes blisters or sores on the face, neck, hands, and diaper area. Learn how this common problem is treated and what can help prevent it. Read More Impetigo Impetigo is a skin infection caused by fairly common bacteria. Read this article to learn how to recognize it and what to do about it. Read More Impetigo Impetigo is a strange-sounding word that might be new to you. It's an infection of the skin caused by bacteria. Read this article to learn more about it. Read More Osteomyelitis Sometimes a bad cut that gets infected can lead to even worse things, like a bone infection called osteomyelitis. The easiest way to protect yourself is to practice good hygiene. Read More Osteomyelitis Osteomyelitis is a bone infection that can happen when germs enter an open wound. The easiest way to prevent it is to keep skin clean. Read More Pneumonia Pneumonia is a common lung infection that can usually be treated without a hospital stay. Read More Pneumonia Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be caused by different types of germs, most commonly viruses. Read about symptoms and treatment. Read More Sinusitis If you've been waking up with headaches, feeling stuffy or congested, and experiencing swelling around your eyes, you may have sinusitis - an infection of the sinus air spaces found in the bones around the nose. Read More Strep Throat Strep throat gives you a sore throat and makes it hard to swallow. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More Strep Throat Strep throat is a common cause of sore throat in kids and teens. It usually requires treatment with antibiotics, but improves in a few days. Read More Abscess An abscess is a sign of an infection, usually on the skin. Find out what to do if your child develops one. Read More Abscess People can get abscesses on the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or even inside the body. Most abscesses are caused by infection, so it can help to know what to do. Find out in this article for teens. Read More Vaccines & Antibiotics: A Safe Combo? Find out what the experts have to say. Read More Sepsis Sepsis is a serious infection usually caused when bacteria make toxins that cause the immune system to attack the body's own organs and tissues. Read More Word! Infection When germs get inside your body, they can multiply and cause an infection. Read More Word! Virus Viruses are a type of germ. They're very tiny, and when they get inside your body, they can make you sick. Read More Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.