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Antibiotics are medications that are prescribed to help the body fight bacterial infections. The primary classes of antibiotics used in children include the penicillins, the sulfas, the cephalosporins and the erythromycins. These medications are only effective in the treatment of bacterial infections and do not have any effect on common viral infections. The presence of fever with an illness does not always mean that a bacterial infection exists, nor does it mean that an antibiotic is necessary for treatment. In fact, most fever in children is caused by viral infections. Antibiotics are expensive, may cause allergic reactions, intestinal upset and other adverse effects and should be used only after a thorough examination has revealed a bacterial infection.

All children experience several infectious illnesses in their early years. A number of factors affect the frequency of these illnesses, but probably the most significant factor is the child’s exposure to other sick children. Attendance at daycare or schools generally leads to more infections. While some illnesses with fever may be harmless and self-limiting, others will require antibiotics to clear the infection. The decision to use antibiotics will be determined by a review of your child’s symptoms and a physical examination. Laboratory test or x-rays may also be needed. Once a bacterial infection is detected, antibiotics will be prescribed. Examples of illnesses requiring antibiotics include ear infection, sinus infection, pneumonia, urinary infection, impetigo, strep throat and joint infection.

When an antibiotic is prescribed, it is important to fully complete the recommended course of treatment. In general, this will be a minimum of 5-10 days. Though the child’s symptoms may improve in 3-4 days, the antibiotic should be taken until it is all gone.

In review, most childhood illnesses with fever are caused by viruses and do not require antibiotic therapy. If, however, a bacterial infection is discovered after a proper evaluation, an antibiotic will be prescribed. The body’s own defenses will adequately combat most viral infections and therefore antibiotics will afford no help in this case.

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