Reactions from antibiotics are responsible for more than 65,000 children being rushed to ERs every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study out today from a team at the CDC shows specifically that allergic reactions to these powerful drugs are the top culprit.

The review of nearly 6,000 medical records of children under the age of 19, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that their most common reactions included skin rashes, hives, swelling of the mouth and throat, or difficulty breathing. Others had stomach cramping, diarrhea, dizziness, fainting, headaches, and muscle weakness.

Some children developed another infection as a result of taking these drugs. Candida, a fungus that causes yeast infections, and C. difficile, a bacterium that causes a dangerous type of diarrhea that can even prove deadly, can develop when antibiotics wipe out the body’s protective bacteria, leaving the body vulnerable to these germs.

Results showed that eight of the top 15 drugs that caused the most problems included common antibiotics such as amoxicillin (Amoxil, Moxatag, and generic), azithromycin (Zithromax, Z-Pak, and generic), clindamycin (Cleosin and generic), and penicillin.

For children aged 5 years or younger, antibiotics were the most common type of drug involved in ER visits for adverse side effects. The same drugs were also to blame for nearly a third of such ER visits for children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 years.

For Many Kids, Antibiotics Aren't Helpful

"Many antibiotic prescriptions are not necessary to begin with," says Adam Hersh, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Treatment guidelines from medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, in addition to the Choosing Wisely initiative, of which Consumer Reports is an active partner since the campaign launched five years ago, advise against prescribing antibiotics for common childhood ailments such as colds, coughs, and sore throats not caused by strep.

Yet, according to a 2011 analysis by researchers at the CDC, more than half of all U.S. antibiotic prescriptions for children aged 14 years or younger are for respiratory tract infections, which are commonly viral.

"Cold, the flu, and other respiratory infections are typically caused by viruses," says Hersh. "And antibiotics don’t work against viruses."

Antibiotics do, however, play a vital role treating bacterial infections, says Hersh.

Keep Your Kids Out of the ER

The first step in making sure your child doesn’t land in the ER because of an antibiotic is knowing when one is truly needed, according to Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

Treating common viral infections with an antibiotic won’t help your child feel better faster and puts him or her at risk for side effects, which in rare cases can be very serious, says Hersh. What’s more, overuse of the drugs is contributing to the rise of dangerous superbugs—strains of bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

If your doctor tells you an antibiotic is not necessary for you child’s illness, our medical experts recommend making sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. For sinus pressure and other nasal discomfort, try a saline (saltwater) sinus rinse or spray and inhale steam from a hot bath, shower, or kettle.

For easing pain, give an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) or ibuprofen (Advil and generic). And try honey for treating coughs—according to a 2014 review of studies by the Cochrane Collaboration, it’s safer than over-the-counter cough medicines, though should not be given to children under 1 year of age.

So, how do you know if your child needs an antibiotic? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if:

  • Your child’s cough does not get better in 14 days.
  • Your child’s doctor diagnoses a bacterial form of pneumonia or whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Your child has a yellow-green nasal discharge and a fever of at least 102° F for several days in a row, or symptoms get better and then worsen.
  • Your child has strep throat, based on a rapid strep test or a throat culture. Note that antibiotics should not be prescribed unless one of the tests is positive for strep. Strep cannot be diagnosed just by looking at the throat.
     

Editor's Note: These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).