Skip to main content


How to use antibiotic medications wisely

When does my child need antibiotics?

Some infections are not treated with antibiotics. It is important to use antibiotics only when they are needed. Antibiotics do not treat infections caused by viruses and should only be used for infections from bacteria. The chart below shows what infections are caused by a virus, bacteria, or both and when antibiotics are needed.

Common Condition Common Cause Are Antibiotics Needed?
Virus Either Bacteria
Bronchiolitis (inflammation of small airways) X     No
COVID-19 X     No
Flu X     No
Fluid in the Middle Ear X     No
Other Throat Infections (except strep) X     No
Upper Respiratory Infection (Common Cold) X     No
Otitis Media (aka Ear Infection)   X   Maybe
Sinus Infection   X   Maybe
Strep Throat     X Yes
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)     X Yes

Content adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

My child was given an antibiotic. Now what?

Antibiotics can be very helpful for treating infections caused by bacteria, like strep throat or urinary tract infections. However, it’s important to follow your health care provider’s instructions to help your child take antibiotics correctly and keep them safe. Here are some tips:

  1. Listen to your health care team. They may need to change or stop your child’s antibiotics 1 to 2 days after their visit, especially if they did tests during the visit.
  2. What if my child won’t take their antibiotic? Taking antibiotics can be hard for some children. Get tips on how to help your child take medications.
  3. My child feels better, now what? Even if your child feels better, make sure your child takes all the antibiotic doses. Learn why.
  4. Do not save extra antibiotics. You should not store them for later. Taking old antibiotics can be dangerous. Do not share antibiotics with anyone. Learn how to safely get rid of medications.
  5. Help! My child isn’t getting better. Depending on the infection they have, your child should start to feel better after 2 to 3 days of antibiotics. If your child is feeling worse or can’t take their antibiotic, contact your health care team.
  6. What side effects should I watch for? Mild side effects like rash, dizziness, upset stomach, yeast infections, and diarrhea can happen in many children.

Seek emergency medical attention if your child has:

  • Lip swelling
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Hives
  • Severe diarrhea

These are signs of an allergic reaction. Your child may need a different antibiotic.

My child did not get an antibiotic. What can I do to help them?

Some infections are not treated with antibiotics. Learn about when antibiotics help and when they do not. It is important to use antibiotics only when they are needed. They can cause harm if not used correctly.

What can I do to help my child feel better?

Have them stay at home and rest until they do not have a fever for at least 24 hours.

If they have pain or a temperature of 100.4F or higher, you can give them acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Your health care team will tell you what you can give your child.

Have your child drink plenty of water and clear liquids to stay hydrated.

Find out more ways to help your child if they have:

When should I take my child to see a health care provider?

If your child has any of the symptoms below, you should see a health care provider:

  • Fever in a child younger than 12 weeks old.
  • Fast breathing, trouble breathing or ribs pulling in with each breath.
  • Dehydration
    • They haven’t gone pee for 8 hours.
    • They can’t keep clear liquids down because of vomiting.
  • New symptoms, or previous symptoms that are getting worse.
  • Not getting better in 48 to 72 hours (2 to 3 days).
  • Not interacting or being alert when awake.

5 things to know about antibiotics

1. It is not safe to take leftover antibiotics or antibiotics given to someone else.

Do not keep any extra antibiotics. Do not give your child leftover antibiotics because it might not be the right kind or the right dose to treat the infection your child has. Side effects could happen if the dose is too high, too low, or not the right antibiotic choice. Antibiotics that are expired or stored wrong can cause harm. If you have extra antibiotic doses, do not keep them. Find out how to throw away medications safely.

2. Your child does not need antibiotics every time they are sick.

Antibiotics should only be used to treat certain infections from bacteria like strep throat or urinary tract infections. Antibiotics do not treat infections caused by viruses, like colds or a runny nose, even if the snot is yellow/green and thick. Antibiotics can cause side effects like diarrhea, vomiting, or rash, so it is important to only take them when they will work the best. Review the chart above to understand when antibiotics are needed.

3. All antibiotics work differently.

Each antibiotic works differently. Your health care team will pick an antibiotic that works best for the infection your child has and will cause the fewest side effects. This is why you might get one kind of antibiotic one time and a different one the next time.

4. The antibiotics my child takes can affect other people.

We need antibiotics to get better from infections from bacteria. There are wrong ways to take antibiotics including taking the wrong dose, taking them for the wrong length of time, or taking them when you don’t need to. When antibiotics are taken in the wrong way, bacteria have a chance to learn more and can be harder to treat in the future. This is called antibiotic resistance. The bacteria can be passed to other people and cause infections. These infections are harder to treat because the bacteria have learned to protect themselves from the antibiotics. Learn more about antimicrobial resistance.

5. Some side effects to antibiotics are normal. Having these does not mean your child should never take that antibiotic again.

If your child had mild side effects, like stomach upset or mild diarrhea, they can use the antibiotic again. If your child developed signs of an allergic reaction, like hives or throat swelling, this could man they have true allergy and your child should not take the antibiotic again. If family members are allergic to an antibiotic, it does not mean your child will be allergic too. Many children grow out of antibiotic allergies to penicillin or amoxicillin. Children’s Mercy Penicillin Allergy Testing Clinic can test your child to see if they are still allergic. Ask your health care team if a referral is right for you. Talk with your health care team about your child’s allergies to learn which antibiotics your child should not take.