How to Tell When Your Child Needs Antibiotics

by Allison Bush Editor

The old adage, "less is more," might be exactly right when it comes to taking antibiotics. In order to preserve the efficacy of this wonder drug, parents should be cautious if their pediatrician doles out a prescription for their child. If you find yourself in this situation, be sure to ask "why," and remember that antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.

Colds and bronchitis

Antibiotics are not necessary to treat colds or bronchitis, even if they seem to last for awhile. Colds and bronchitis generally last longer than two weeks, so as long as there aren't signs of pneumonia, hold off on the antibiotics.


Sinus discharge

What about the green sinus discharge? And the phlegm? Studies have shown that green discharge is most likely viral as opposed to bacterial, and so you do not need to be treated with antibiotics. The color of the discharge may vary as the body fights off infection.

Ear infection

New guidelines for ear infections from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that patients without severe symptoms might not need to be treated with antibiotics. Because ear infections can be either viral or bacterial, guidelines encourage watchful waiting over immediate antibiotic treatment. If your child is experiencing ear pain, take him to the doctor immediately so they can make an accurate diagnosis.


Pneumonia is definitely a case where antibiotics are the right call for treatment. However, you cannot be diagnosed with pneumonia without a chest x-ray. This is important because bronchitis and pneumonia often have the same physical symptoms, but bronchitis is a viral infection, whereas pneumonia is bacterial.


Sore throat

Even though your child's throat looks like it's on fire (and feels like it, too), the doctor will check for white spots, which are an indication of a bacterial infection (i.e., strep). It's also important to look at other symptoms, since most viral colds typically begin with a sore throat. To be sure it's bacterial, the doctor should do a culture or a rapid antigen test while you wait at the office.

Allison Bush
Meet Our Writer
Allison Bush

Allison Bush is a former HealthCentral editor who covered a wide range of health topics.