Antibiotics for Babies – Advantages and Side Effects


Antibiotics are life-saving drugs and can be heralded as one of the most important breakthroughs in medicine in the 20th century. Antibiotics for newborn babies are used successfully to treat a number of diseases which are life-threatening and reduce suffering. Their overuse, however, has lowered their effectiveness in the last few decades.

What are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines that are made to destroy bacteria which cause diseases and infections. They work by interfering with the bacteria’s ability to feed, grow or reproduce which eventually kills them. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria and cannot be used to fight against illnesses caused by other organisms such as viruses, protozoan and fungi.

Different Types of Antibiotics

Antibiotics have a different mechanism of how they act on bacteria, based on that there are over 150 different antibiotics to treat everything from minor infections to life-threatening diseases. All the antibiotics are grouped into one of these categories:

  • cephalosporins
  • fluoroquinolones
  • penicillins
  • erythromycins
  • polypeptides
  • tetracyclines
  • aminoglycosides
  • quinolones
  • streptogramins
  • sulfonamide

Out of these, the most commonly used are penicillin, amoxicillin, erythromycin and gentamicin.

Are Antibiotics Safe for Infants?

Antibiotics can be lifesaving when babies contract deadly infections such as meningitis, pneumonia, urinary infection and bloodstream infections. They can be administered safely and like all medications, antibiotics have some side effects. Therefore they should only be used when the need is justified.


When Does Your Baby Need Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are useful when babies are suffering from the following common ailments:

1. High Fever

A fever is an indication that the body is fighting off an infection. High fevers that are in the range of 100-102 degree Fahrenheit are generally symptoms of a serious bacterial infection. In such serious cases, antibiotics such as amoxicillin, ampicillin or penicillin are prescribed even if doctors aren’t entirely sure if it’s a bacterial infection.

2. Ear Infections

When older children have ear infections, the norm is to wait for 1 -2 weeks to see if it clears up on its own. Infants are an exception; they are unable to clearly express how much pain or discomfort they are in and therefore will need an antibiotic like amoxicillin. Severe infection can lead to symptoms such as excessive crying, sleeping difficulties, irritability, high fever and tugging or pulling the ear.

3. Pneumonia

It’s tricky to determine whether pneumonia in babies is caused by virus or bacteria. Viral upper respiratory tract infections also have the similar symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, fever and/or vomiting. Since complications from pneumonia in babies can often be dangerous, doctors don’t take chances and prescribe antibiotics even when the causal microbe is unknown.

4. Whooping Cough

Whooping cough can be effectively treated when antibiotics are started within the first week as soon as the symptoms arise. Azithromycin is the commonly prescribed antibiotic and other options include erythromycin and clarithromycin.


5. Urinary Tract Infections

UTIs’ can occur when bacteria from the faecal matter or other areas enter the bladder or the kidneys. Irritability, diarrhoea, fever and vomiting are the normal symptoms of a UTI and a diagnosis can be made using the results of a urine culture.

6. Other Infections

Sometimes babies can also develop a strep throat or sinus infections caused by similar organisms. Antibiotics are needed to treat such cases.

When Do Babies Not Need Antibiotics?

  • There are many conditions your baby might experience that don’t require the use of antibiotics.
  • Most viral infections such as cold, cough and fevers cannot be treated with antibiotics.
  • Any condition that is not caused by bacteria doesn’t need antibiotics.
  • Some examples include colds and flu, bronchitis, croupsnort of any colour and more.

How Fast do Antibiotics Start to Work?

Once the treatment is started, most children will feel better within 48 to 72 hours. However, it’s important to remember that feeling better is not full recovery. The course of antibiotics must be completed so it can destroy all the bacteria that cause the disease. Stopping the course in between at the first sign relief would allow the microbe build resistance to the antibiotics and may relapse in a short time requiring the use of stronger antibiotics.

What are the Advantages of Using Antibiotics for a Young Child?

  1. Since the discovery of penicillin the first antibiotic and its widespread use since 1940’s, antibiotics have been used to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and meningitis which were otherwise fatal.
  2. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since their use over the last 70 years.
  3. Antibiotics can curb the growth of disease at an early and the long-term repercussions and disabilities they can cause.

Side-Effects of Antibiotics in Babies

While antibiotics are life-saving, they also come with side effects which include:

1. Symptomatic Effects

Babies can have symptomatic side effects from taking antibiotics such as nausea (which results in poor appetite), vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, lightheadedness and headaches. Other types of antibiotics can cause nerve damage involved with hearing and balance and produce symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and a ringing sound in the ears.


2. Can Cause Immune System Damage

Antibiotics while being a powerful weapon against diseases can also cause harm to babies when used in the wrong situations. Antibiotics that protect against infections also impede the development of commensal bacteria that live in the gut. This is known to have long-term damage to the immune system as these bacteria in the digestive system contribute to the formation of immunity.

3. Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions are more common to an antibiotic that belongs to the penicillin or sulphamide families. Babies having allergies to them experiences hives, itchy rashes, breathing difficulties and inflammation soon after taking the antibiotics or develop it a few days after the treatment is started.

4. Antibiotics Destroy Useful Bacteria

Antibiotics for babies under 6 months must be used cautiously as they kill even the helpful bacteria that are present in their sensitive guts along with the infection causing ones. These helpful bacteria in the gut are needed for digestion and protection against other infections. They keep a check on yeast such as Candida which is naturally present in our bodies. Thus yeast infection can occur as a common complication of using antibiotics.

5. Antibiotic Resistance

Bacteria like all living organisms can adapt and evolve ways to become resistant to antibiotics over time. This resistance is built when antibiotics are overused or used unnecessarily to treat viral infections. It also occurs as a result of using inappropriate antibiotics for the bacteria or the failure to complete an entire prescribed course.

6. Superbugs

Antibiotic resistance can make bacteria so strong that they cannot be destroyed by any existing antibiotics. These types of bacteria called superbugs pose a real threat to us and their infections are untreatable.

Dangers of Antibiotics Overuse

Antibiotic overuse is a major problem as many worried parents often demand them as a safety precaution to simple conditions such as common colds and flu. It’s much easier for a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic rather than to take time and explain to the parents as to why it shouldn’t be overused. Also of concern is that antibiotics available as over the counter medication and people self-medicate often improperly.

Agriculture and animal farming also use antibiotics extensively to fight diseases and improve their yield. Looking at the bigger picture, antibiotics overuse is beefing up the bacteria while our immune systems are not strong enough to keep up with them naturally which increase the risk of outbreaks of dangerous diseases.


How to Use Antibiotics Wisely?

Antibiotics are so common these days that we forget that they are potent drugs and they use comes with consequences. Here are some ways to use them wisely:

  • Maintain good hygiene so babies do not fall sick often
  • Do not take antibiotics for viral infections such as cold or flu
  • Antibiotics use should be exactly as the doctor has prescribed
  • The full course of antibiotics should be taken, even if you’re feeling better
  • Never self-medicate or save antibiotics for later use
  • Do not dispose of them in the drain or garbage

Although it is a double-edged sword, the proper use of antibiotics is safe and saves lives.

Also Read: How to Give Medicines to Baby