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What to know about antibiotics for kids

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Antibiotics for kids BenefitsRisksSummary
Antibiotics are effective in treating infections caused by bacteria. But the overuse or misuse of antibiotics can lead to complications in children. 
Medically reviewed by Alexandra Perez, PharmD, MBA, BCGP
Written by Suan Pineda
Updated on December 1, 2023

Antibiotics are prescription medications that treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat, certain ear infections, and urinary tract infections (UTIs). 

Children, like adults, can safely take antibiotics to treat these bacterial infections. However, experts caution about the overuse of antibiotics in kids because they are powerful medications that can cause uncomfortable side effects like stomach upset. Additionally, unnecessary use or overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance. 

Unlike adults, children are also developing their immune systems. The overuse of antibiotics can make children more vulnerable to sickness in the long term.

Antibiotics for kids 

A young child being carried by their parent, perhaps on a course of antibiotics for kids.
Chalit Saphaphak/Stocksy United

Children are susceptible to infections as their immune systems get used to the germs around them. Some of these infections are caused by bacteria, and others by viruses. 

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections only. So, it’s necessary to get a proper diagnosis to confirm bacteria is the cause of your child’s symptoms. If so, a healthcare professional may prescribe your child antibiotics. Some safe antibiotics for children include:  

Antibiotic (brand name)What it treats
amoxicillin (Amoxil)strep throat, ear infections, sinus infections, childhood pneumonia
amoxicillin/clavulanic acid (Augmentin)strep throat, ear infections, sinus infections, childhood pneumonia, mouth infections
azithromycin (Zithromax)ear infections and pharyngitis (sore throat)
cephalexin (Keflex)ear infections, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and skin infections like impetigo
cefdinir (Omnicef)sinus infections, ear infections, and pneumonia
cefixime (Suprax)UTI
cefpodoxime (Vantin)UTI
cefprozil (Cefzil)UTI
clarithromycin (Biaxin)pharyngitis
clindamycin (Cleocin Pediatric)pharyngitis

Antibiotics can cause side effects. Common side effects include feeling and being sick, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Some people may experience severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis. In this case, go to your nearest emergency service. 

Talk with your child’s pediatrician to learn about the side effects of specific antibiotics. Sometimes, healthcare professionals may choose not to use certain antibiotics, such as prophylactic antibiotics (those that prevent an infection), because their side effects outweigh their benefits. 

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Benefits of antibiotics

The benefit of antibiotics for kids is that they kill and prevent the growth of the bacteria that’s causing an infection. Antibiotics act fast as well, taking a few hours to relieve symptoms. 

Some healthcare professionals may give an antibiotic before surgery to prevent an infection from occurring.

If your child receives a diagnosis of bacterial infection like strep throat or a UTI, a doctor may consider prescribing a course of antibiotics. 

To get the full benefits of antibiotics, make sure to:

  • Give or take the antibiotics exactly as a healthcare professional prescribes.
  • Give or take the medication at the same time of day for the entire course of the antibiotic treatment.
  • Use the antibiotic only on the person it’s prescribed for.
  • Certain antibiotics can cause stomach discomfort, so eating something before taking the antibiotic may be helpful. Talk with your healthcare professional about this. 

Keep in mind that antibiotics should be used only when needed, and you should follow the doctor’s instructions carefully. Avoid self-medicating with antibiotics.

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Risks in children

When antibiotics are overused or misused, it can lead to certain complications. A 2020 study found that 1 in 4 kids who are given antibiotics in hospitals are prescribed the medication incorrectly. 

The main problem with antibiotic overuse or misuse, including self-medicating with antibiotics, is antibiotic resistance. This happens when bacteria and germs learn to overcome the drugs used to fight them. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to global health. 

Antibiotics are known to cause side effects, such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. But inappropriate use of antibiotics can also cause damage to the good bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract, damaging the gut microbiome and causing stomach and digestive issues. 

A 2020 study also found that although antibiotics don’t directly affect the immune system, in children who take antibiotics unnecessarily, their immune systems are prevented from working to their full potential. This makes children more vulnerable to diseases later in life. 

However, if you use antibiotics as prescribed, they aren’t any more dangerous than other medications for children.

Summary

Antibiotics are strong medications that treat bacterial infections. You should feel confident in giving them to your child if they’re prescribed them.

Children are susceptible to different infections caused by bacteria and viruses as their immune system develops.

Antibiotics are effective at treating bacterial infections, such as strep throat, UTIs, and certain ear infections. But they shouldn’t be used to treat the viruses that cause sore throat, the common cold, and other conditions.

The misuse and overuse of antibiotics can lead to complications in children, such as antibiotic resistance and damage to their gut microbiome, which can affect their immune system, making them more vulnerable to diseases in the future.

To safely use antibiotics in children, make sure they receive a proper diagnosis of a bacterial infection.

If they receive a prescription for antibiotics, make sure they take the full course of the treatment as indicated by a healthcare professional, give them the medication at the same time of day, and do not use the antibiotic on anyone else.

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