By Jane Sheppard
Antibiotics have saved many lives over the past 45 years. We are truly fortunate to have them available for serious bacterial infections. Unfortunately, antibiotics are excessively prescribed, especially to children. The Center for Disease Control estimates that of the 235 million doses of antibiotics given each year, between 20 and 50 percent are unnecessary. Tragically, this overuse of antibiotics can cause devastating health consequences to children.
Antibiotic misuse is most likely to occur in children with ear infections (otitis media), the number one reason a child is brought to a doctor. Antibiotic therapy is the most common treatment of ear infections, with amoxicillin being the first choice by doctors. The side effects of amoxicillin include upset stomach, diarrhea, allergic reactions, and diaper rashes. These side effects may seem minor, but are these antibiotics actually necessary for otitis media?
The purpose of antibiotics is to kill harmful bacteria. Otitis media means middle ear inflammation – not necessarily bacterial infection. Many cases are caused by allergies, particularly to milk and dairy products. In a significant number of cases of otitis media, the middle ear contains no harmful bacteria. In a Dutch study of 2,975 children, it was found that 88% of children with acute otitis media did not need antibiotics. Other studies in the U.S. and Scandinavia came to similar conclusions.
Antibiotics have been shown to increase the likelihood of repeat ear infections. One reason is when a doctor prescribes antibiotics the underlying cause of the ear infection is usually ignored and left untreated. For instance, Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as pneumococcus is commonly found in the nose and throat. This bacterium is thought to be responsible for many cases of ear infections, which is why antibiotics are prescribed. However, your child can have pneumococcus and not be sick. It will only cause trouble if it gets trapped in the middle ear. Once trapped, the bacteria can reproduce rapidly and become an infection. This scenario could be the result of an allergic reaction to a certain food, which can cause congestion as well as significant pressure changes and obstruction to the eustachian tube. In the case of an allergy induced ear infection, eliminating the allergen from a child’s diet or environment will also eliminate the obstruction, allowing the bacterial fluid to drain. However, if an allergic child continues to be exposed to the allergen, repeat ear infections are likely to occur.
Another cause of ear infection may be an obstruction to the eustachian tube, due to misalignment of the bones of the jaw, skull or neck. Craniosacral work, chiropractic care or osteopathy would be especially helpful to release the blockage to allow drainage of the fluid.
Nutritional deficiencies or a weakened immune system can also be factors leading to ear infections. Treating the child with antibiotics without correcting the cause will likely create a continuing cycle of repeat ear infections. Many children are dealing with this. A typical scenario
is the child is diagnosed with acute otitis media and antibiotics are prescribed (whether a bacterial infection is present or not). The symptoms disappear in about a week or two, but return again in the near future, since the original cause was not addressed. The child goes back to the doctor for more antibiotics. The cycle continues. Some children spend months or even years on antibiotics, with recurring ear infections. Research has shown that when antibiotics are used at the beginning of an ear infection, the frequency of recurrence may be almost three times greater than if antibiotics are delayed or not used.
Antibiotics do not just go after the pathogenic or “bad” bacteria. They also indiscriminately destroy the beneficial bacteria necessary and vital to good health. Among the more important beneficial bacteria are lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidus. They help protect the body against infection. Depleting these organisms can disrupt the balance of the body, suppress immunity, and lead to increased susceptibility to infections by fungi, bacteria, viruses and parasites. Additionally, when antibiotics are used excessively, depleting the beneficial bacteria, there may be an overgrowth of yeast in the body. A yeast infection can suppress immunity, which may lead to recurrent infections.
What’s more, antibiotics adversely affect many nutrients, particularly the ones needed by the immune system to fight infection, such as vitamins A and C. One of the most common side effects of antibiotics is diarrhea. This causes a loss of nutrients, especially magnesium and zinc. Some children are on antibiotics for months or even years. Nutritional loss over such a long period of time is debilitating for the body and sets up an environment for more infections.
A very frightening consequence of indiscriminate use of antibiotics is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria have “learned” to outsmart the drugs and have reproduced a generation of stronger, more resistant bugs. Consequently, there are some serious infectious diseases that are no longer responding to antibiotics. If an infection does respond, it often requires five to ten times the amount of the drug that used to be effective.
When your child is continually treated with antibiotics, the bacteria in his or her body may eventually be able to survive the drugs, making it much harder to cure an infection. In the event of a serious bacterial infection, such as meningitis, a much higher dosage of antibiotic may be required or a doctor may have to try different drugs before finding one that will work. The time this takes can potentially be a matter of life or death, since meningitis can be fatal and needs to be treated immediately. Unfortunately, with each try at a different treatment, the bacteria are given another chance to build up their resistance against even more powerful drugs.
Antibiotic resistance can affect the whole family and everyone around the child with a history of frequent antibiotic use. If the child develops resistant bacteria, he or she can pass them along to others through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.
Sweeteners, dyes, flavorings, and other unnamed additives are found in antibiotics prescribed to children. These may include saccharin, sucrose, red dye #40, FD & C yellow #5 and #6. These dyes are cross-reactive with aspirin and acetaminophen, which are commonly given to a child during an illness. Even tiny amounts of the chemical additives in antibiotics can cause an allergic reaction in a sensitive child. It’s important to always get a full disclosure of the contents of the drug being considered if your child has allergies or environmental sensitivity. Ask the pharmacist for the insert that comes with the medication.
A truly disturbing practice is the prescribing of antibiotics by some doctors to treat colds, coughs, runny noses or flu. Most upper respiratory infections are viral. Treating them with antibiotics is clear and blatant misuse, since the drugs kill only bacteria and are of no value at all in treating viral infections. There are treatments that can relieve the symptoms of a cold, but there is no drug (over-the-counter or prescription) that will cure a cold.
In the book Beyond Antibiotics: 50 Ways to Boost Immunity and Avoid Antibiotics, Drs. Schmidt, Smith and Sehnert suggest that you ask your doctor the following questions when antibiotics are being prescribed. It is good to get all the answers you can before making a decision.
Are you sure it is bacterial?
Are you sure it is the right antibiotic?
Should a culture be performed?
Are there alternatives to antibiotics?
What are the risks if we don’t use them?
What are the risks if we wait one or two or four days?
Are there dietary or nutritional factors that need consideration?
Should vitamins be prescribed along with the antibiotic?
Should probiotic supplements be given to minimize the intestinal effect of the antibiotic?
Have you considered or investigated the role of food allergy?
If your doctor is not willing to explore these questions, you are justified in getting another opinion. There are many doctors who will be your health partner and explore these issues with you.
Antibiotics may be absolutely necessary in certain situations, such as a life-threatening infection or when serious complications are present. For instance, if your child has symptoms of bacterial meningitis, there is no time to waste. He or she should be taken immediately to a doctor for antibiotics. We are very fortunate to have antibiotics for appropriate situations. However, antibiotics should be used in conjunction with methods that strengthen the immune system, and the depleted beneficial bacteria should always be replaced. Most importantly, the cause of the infection needs to be addressed for true healing to take place.