When your kids are too sick to go to school, you'd do just about anything to help them feel better. But giving them the wrong medicine can do more harm than good.

Too many parents pressure doctors to prescribe antibiotics when their kids don't need them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These drugs aren't effective against the flu or common colds, which are caused by viruses. What's more, overuse of antibiotics causes bacteria to become resistant to the drugs, which could make it harder to treat future illnesses.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread quickly among family members and school classmates. Illnesses caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more difficult to treat, causing kids to miss more days of school and requiring parents to take more time off work to care for them. But smart use of antibiotics—taking them only when they will really make a difference—can help control the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, but do not cure most colds, coughs, runny noses, or sore throats. They won't help a sick child feel better or keep these illnesses from spreading to others. If you're not sure whether your child's illness is caused by a virus or bacteria, talk with a doctor.

Treating Common Illnesses

Get Smart About Antibiotics
Common cold

Antibiotics are not used to treat colds. Keep in mind that a typical cold may last for up to two weeks. Let the doctor know if your child begins to feel worse or stays sick longer than expected. Your child should see a doctor if she has a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, if symptoms last more than 10 days, or if symptoms aren't relieved by over-the-counter medicines.

Cough or bronchitis

Antibiotics are rarely needed to treat coughs or bronchitis, which usually get better on their own. See a doctor if a child has shortness of breath or trouble breathing, a chronic heart or lung problem, a fever and cough with thick or bloody mucus, a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, symptoms lasting more than three weeks, or repeated episodes of bronchitis.

Sore throat

Most sore throats are caused by viruses and don't require antibiotics. Only strep throat is treated by antibiotics. Doctors perform a strep test to determine if a sore throat is caused by strep bacteria. Take your child to the doctor if his sore throat lasts for more than one week or he has come into contact with someone who has strep throat, or if he has difficulty swallowing or breathing, pus on the back of the throat, a rash, a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, blood in saliva or phlegm, hoarseness lasting more than two weeks, dehydration symptoms, or recurring sore throats.

Flu

The flu is caused by a virus and is not treated with antibiotics. If your child has flu symptoms, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to help him recover faster. He should see a doctor if he has trouble breathing, a lack of interest in fluids, or bluish skin, or if he has confusion or feels better then worse again.

Ear infection

Antibiotics are needed in many, but not all, cases of ear infection. Because ear infections have several causes, your doctor must decide the best course of treatment. Children should be seen by a doctor if they have blood or pus from the ears or a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or if they have been diagnosed with an ear infection and symptoms worsen or do not improve.

Sinus infection

Some severe or long-lasting sinus infections require antibiotics. However, most children with thick or green mucus don't have sinus infections. It's normal for mucus to thicken and change to a yellow or green color during a cold. A doctor can determine whether the sinus infection should be treated with antibiotics. Take your child to the doctor if she has a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, symptoms that last more than 10 days, or symptoms that aren't relieved with over-the-counter medicines, or if she has had multiple sinus infections in the past year.

Helping Kids Feel Better

You've probably heard it said that viruses have to run their course, but there are some things you can do to relieve your child's symptoms when he has a viral infection.

  • Make sure children drink plenty of fluids.
  • Make sure children get plenty of rest.
  • Relieve nasal congestion with a saline nasal spray or cool mist vaporizer.
  • Soothe a sore throat with ice chips, sore throat spray, or throat lozenges. (Lozenges are not appropriate for very young children, however.)
  • Give children an over-the-counter pain reliever or decongestant as directed.

Staying Home From School

In most cases, it's OK for your child to go to school with a cold. If your child has the flu, she should stay home until she goes at least 24 hours without a fever.

If your child has an illness caused by a virus but feels well enough to go to school, remind her to use good hygiene habits. These include washing hands frequently and thoroughly with soap, coughing and sneezing into a tissue or sleeve rather than into a hand, and not sharing drinks or food utensils with other people.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Emily Graham is a senior editor for School Family Media. She lives with her family in Oklahoma.