Side Effects of Antibiotics
Although antibiotics aren’t “drugs” in the traditional sense, they can nonetheless come with an assortment of side effects due to how they disrupt the microbial balance throughout your body. “Antibiotics can case stomachaches, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and sometimes allergic reactions or more serious problems,” says pediatrician Claire McCarthy. “While major side effects are rare, stomach upset isn’t; one in ten kids taking antibiotics ends up with diarrhea.” (McCarthy, 2012, p. 76) Here is a list of possible side effects from antibiotics:
- Stomach aches
- Nausea & vomiting
- Dry or cracking skin
Nearly all the side effects from antibiotics come from the way they disrupt your microbiome. Throughout your body there are trillions of beneficial, symbiotic bacteria that help your body function properly. These bacteria do assorted tasks, like help us digest food, dispose of waste, and keep your skin healthy. Antibiotics don’t just kill the bad bacteria, they also kill the good ones. Which is why gastrointestinal problems are such a common side effect–your gut is a virtual jungle of probiotics, and when these populations of bacteria are reduced, your gastrointestinal system doesn’t function properly. Once the population of these beneficial bacteria recover, the symptoms should go away.
Antibiotic Use In Children
If your child is sick, you go to the doctor and walk out with a prescription for something to make them better, which often features some type of antibiotic. The typical child in the developed world now receives 10 to 20 courses of antibiotic treatment by the age of 18, often to treat conditions for which these drugs do little or no good. (Coniff, 2013) There’s several reasons parents and pediatricians should be a lot more cautious when it comes to giving antibiotics to children:
1. The overuse of antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, which is endangering us all.
2. Doctors often carelessly prescribe antibiotics for illnesses they can’t possibly treat (like viral infections), often because parents insist they prescribe something.
3. There’s a lot of emerging evidence which suggests that overusing antibiotics is harming children’s health, leading to a number of other chronic illnesses.
Why the overuse of antibiotics is dangerous and can harm children’s health
Most people are accustomed to thinking of bacteria in strictly negative terms – as a nasty pathogen that makes you sick. But there are far more helpful bacteria than hurtful ones, and your body is teeming with bacterial life that perform important functions – everything from keeping your skin healthy to helping you digest food. This ecosystem of bacteria is collectively known as the “microbiome.” When you take antibiotics, it can harm these helpful bacteria alongside the hurtful ones, leading to other health problems.
Children are especially vulnerable to this effect, since their bodies are so young and their microbiome is still under construction. “For two or three generations we’ve been under the illusion that there is no long-term cost to using antibiotics,” says Martin Blaser, a physician at New York University School of Medicine. But “you can’t have something this powerful and change something as fundamental as our microbiome, at a critical time in development, and not have an effect.” (Coniff, 2013, p. 45)
New research is showing that the microbiome struggles to recover from repeated assaults. In some cases children may permanently lose certain species of helpful bacteria.
Infants exposed to antibiotics in the first 6 months of life are 22% more likely to be overweight as toddlers than unexposed infants, and it’s suspected the reason for this is that antibiotics knock down essential gut microbes. The recent rise in many diseases and chronic health conditions – diabetes, obesity, asthma, hay fever, eczema, celiac disease, and others – which in some cases have doubled or quadrupled, also tracks closely with the increase in c-sections and a rise in antibiotic use.
Another new study out of the University of Helsinki linked antibiotics to stunted development. Boys given antibiotics within two weeks of birth grew at a slower rate than peers, with significantly lower height and weight gain over the next six years. Girls, however, showed no distinctions between the antibiotic and no-antibiotic group. Researchers believe the early antibiotic exposure interrupted the delicate microbiome in boys. To test this theory, they implanted microbes from the babies feces into young mice. Sure enough, mice given microbes from the antibiotic treated babies grew up to be smaller.(The Week, 2-12-2021, p. 21)
When to give a child antibiotics
This doesn’t mean you should never give a child antibiotics. It just means you should save them for select occasions while exercising a lot more caution. Some infections, such as strep throat or ear infections, can be difficult to clear without the help of an antibiotic, and sometimes your child’s school may insist upon it. But on many other occasions, the antibiotic is best avoided. Here are some guidelines to go by:
1. Be patient
Your child’s immune system is capable of clearing away harmful bacteria on its own. Yet usually when a child gets sick, parents take them to the doctor at the peak of symptoms. The doctor then prescribes an antibiotic. But by this time their immune system has already ramped up and they have already hit the peak of their illness and are on the downward trajectory. An antibiotic certainly might help, and may help them clear the infection just a little bit faster, but is getting over an illness a day or so sooner really worth the assault to their microbiome? I would argue in most cases it isn’t. If parents just waited and let their child’s immune system do the work on its own, in most cases they’d have no problem clearing the infection without the aid of medication. It might even strengthen their immunity. So for normal illnesses, a wait and see approach typically works better.
Patience is also key to ensure you get the right diagnosis. For instance, it can take up to 48 hours for a test to determine what is causing a urinary tract infection, and “doctors and patients don’t want to wait 48 hours,” says Dr. Charles Cutler. So they end up prescribing an antibiotic when the source of the problem isn’t a bacterial infection.
2. Choose the best tool
A study of children published in 2011 in the journal Pediatrics found that when antibiotics were prescribed, they were broad-spectrum antibiotics 50% of the time. Many doctors go for broad-spectrum antibiotics first, especially when treating respiratory conditions. (Reddy, 8-20-2013) It’s simply easier to go for one that wipes out everything. But while this may be convenient in the moment, it’s not good for your child’s long-term health.
You should always ask your doctor whether they’re prescribing a broad-spectrum antibiotic, and if so, whether there’s a narrow-spectrum one that might do the trick. On a similar note, for things like skin or ear infections, see if there are topical or localized antibiotics that would act on the infection directly without attacking everything in their body.