The Dangers of the Overuse of Antibiotics in Infants and Children

The consequences for individuals and the general population of the overuse of antibiotics in infants and children are a public health issue. Keep reading to find out what you need to know.
The Dangers of the Overuse of Antibiotics in Infants and Children

Last update: 11 October, 2022

Much has been said about the potential dangers of the overuse of antibiotics in infants and children. It’s a controversial and constantly evolving topic, which has determined the way some diseases are treated today.

Ultimately, science has been clear about it: If you’re not careful with the use of these drugs, the negative consequences won’t only be individual, but also global.

So, today we’ll explain what these consequences are and what can be done to avoid them.

What does it mean when we talk about the overuse of antibiotics?

The overuse of antibiotics in infants and children is related to the indiscriminate use of these drugs without medical indication.

Many times, when faced with a banal health problem in children (generally respiratory or gastrointestinal conditions), parents offer them easily accessible remedies. Although this may be based on previous experiences and some reliable information found on the internet, the only person trained and authorized to prescribe this type of drug is the physician.

The main problem with self-medication is that, in many places, the purchase and sale of antibiotics are poorly regulated. Also, many households tend to stockpile drugs due to multiple reasons. For example, to avoid going to the doctor, for economic reasons, or because of a possible shortage, among others.

A pharmacist taking a box of medication off a shelf.
Antibiotics are essential drugs for the treatment of multiple infectious diseases. But their use should be restricted to conditions that warrant it, and this is a shared responsibility between physicians, pharmacists, and users.

When is it convenient to use antibiotics in infants and children?

Antimicrobials or antibiotics are drugs that are widely used nowadays. As their name indicates, they’re used to eliminate microorganisms that cause an infectious process. At this point, it’s important to make some clarifications:

  • The microorganisms capable of causing disease in humans are very varied. In general terms, they include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Each has its own pathological mechanism and this varies greatly between species.
  • In the case of antibiotics, they’re only effective against bacterial infections. In other words, they’re not useful for curing viral infections.

One of the biggest diagnostic challenges faced by specialists is determining the most likely origin of infections, according to the clinical manifestations of children.

If parents or caregivers don’t have medical knowledge, they won’t be able to differentiate between bacterial and viral infections. And, as a result, they’re likely to give children an antibiotic for no reason. A clear example of this is viral pharyngitis, which is often assumed to be strep throat (or bacterial) even when the diagnostic criteria aren’t met.

The dangers of the overuse of antibiotics in infants and children

From the infamous antimicrobial resistance to the development of allergic diseases, the risks of the overuse of these drugs exist and deserve some thought. Below, we’ll explain some of the negative consequences of this practice, which is far from harmless.

1. Bacterial resistance increases

In recent years, international health organizations have made an intense effort to draw attention to this global problem. This is mentioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) in one of its publications.

Bacteria have naturally developed a set of mechanisms designed to defend themselves against the action of certain substances that are lethal to them, such as antibiotics. The most surprising thing is that the more these drugs are used, the more resistance to them is generated.

Antibiotics have greatly reduced the mortality of many conditions, such as pneumonia or meningitis. These diseases today can be easily treated with early hospital admission and timely treatment.

But in the current situation, it’s estimated that, over time, bacteria will become less sensitive to the antibiotics we have today. Even at the current rate of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s more than likely that within a few decades, many of the most common infectious diseases will become a real threat to humanity due to the inability to cure them.

2. The overuse of antibiotics negatively affects the intestinal microbiota

The intestinal microbiota is the set of bacteria that naturally inhabit the digestive system. Under normal conditions, there’s a balance between those that are beneficial to humans, which prevents the development of pathogenic bacteria and fights many diseases in these organs.

There are numerous situations that can lead to alteration of the intestinal microbiota, including the abuse of antibiotics in infants and children. These substances don’t discriminate which microorganisms they eliminate, which can cause significant gastrointestinal health problems.

A study published in Gut Microbes (2021) concluded that the use of antibiotics decreases the diversity of bacteria in the microbiota and is associated with a process called intestinal dysbiosis. This phenomenon favors the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, such as E. coli and Shigella.

A mother and baby at an appointment with a pediatrician.
It’s true that even if they’re prescribed by a physician, antimicrobials can damage the intestinal flora. However, their abuse increases the probability of causing damage. In this case, pediatricians know when and how to use drugs in the safest possible way.

3. Antibiotic abuse increases the likelihood of developing allergies

A research paper published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (2017) reviewed medical records from a Tokyo hospital and found an interesting relationship between the early use of antibiotics and the development of certain diseases.

The researchers determined that the population studied (those with exposure to antimicrobials in the first 2 years of their lives) significantly increased the risk of suffering from asthma, atopic dermatitis, and allergic rhinitis. These are a group of diseases that are closely related and considerably diminish the quality of life of individuals.

If in doubt, consult a physician

If common childhood symptoms appear (such as sore throat, fever, cough, diarrhea, or urination problems), it’s best to see a pediatrician as soon as possible to assess the possible causes. It’s important to know that the treatment of the diagnosed condition may or may not include antibiotics.

If you have doubts about the medications prescribed by your doctor, we recommend that you consult them about the need for the use of antibiotics in order to understand their reasons. And also, to know what to consider the next time something similar happens.

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The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.