Antibiotics in an orange prescription bottle

Almost half of parents hold on to leftover antibiotics that have been prescribed to their children, according to research being presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference on Nov. 5.

And about three-quarters of those parents later use the saved antibiotics themselves or give them to their children, other children, or unrelated adults, all without consulting a doctor.

When antibiotics are used for illnesses they aren’t meant to treat, such as colds or the flu, they don’t help and could cause potentially serious side effects. Parents also run the risk of choosing the wrong dose, or the wrong medication entirely.

More on Antibiotics

This misuse contributes to antibiotic resistance: the development of dangerous bacteria that can no longer be treated with many or any commonly used drugs.

“Antibiotics are life-saving medicines that treat bacterial infections, and they’re very important,” says Katherine Fleming-Dutra, M.D., a pediatrician and deputy director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Antibiotic Stewardship, who was not involved with the new study. “But they don’t work for every illness.”

People already use antibiotics when they aren't required, with past research showing that a third of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. This new data, which has not yet been published, suggest that rates of unnecessary antibiotic use are likely even higher, due to the frequency with which parents use leftover antibiotics without any medical supervision.

What the Study Found

The team behind the new study—led by Ruth Milanaik, D.O., director of the Neonatal Neurodevelopment Follow-Up Program at the Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York—conducted a national survey of 496 parents. 

Just over 48 percent of parents said they saved “leftover” antibiotics that had been prescribed to their children. Of parents who saved unused antibiotics, 73 percent said they later used them or shared them. Parents were most likely to reuse leftover antibiotic liquids or drops and least likely to reuse tablets.

While this is still preliminary data, it adds to previous research suggesting that the use of unprescribed antibiotics is widespread. In one previous study, about a quarter of adults said they would personally use antibiotics without getting a doctor’s prescription. 

The Problem With Reusing Antibiotics

There are a number of ways using leftover antibiotics later could cause harm.  

  • Your child may not need an antibiotic. “It takes a healthcare professional to tell you if [a child has] an infection where an antibiotic is needed,” says Fleming-Dutra. People frequently think they need antibiotics to treat upper respiratory infections like colds or the flu, she says, but these illnesses are viral, which means that bacteria-fighting antibiotics won’t do anything.
  • Antibiotics can have side effects, which are sometimes serious. Approximately 70,000 kids in the U.S. end up in the emergency room every year due to adverse reactions to antibiotics, according to a CDC analysis published in August.
  • Overusing antibiotics can kill helpful bacteria along with harmful bugs. Antibiotics disrupt the bacteria that live in and on us and are important for our health, according to Fleming-Dutra. Killing “good” bacteria or upsetting this balance can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and yeast infections, and put a person at risk for a dangerous C. difficile infection, she says.
  • Even when a child has a bacterial infection, you could use the wrong antibiotic, the wrong dose, or both. Antibiotics and doses are tailored to a child’s age and weight and the organism causing the infection, according to Milanaik. Different bugs can cause similar-seeming infections, and those infections may need different treatments.
  • Old antibiotics could be expired. “We were surprised at how long people were saving antibiotics,” said Milanaik—sometimes for months. “They were really willing to use them when they were quite over what would be considered a reasonable time to leave them in their fridge.” In some cases, leftover medications are expired, which could mean they won’t work as well. Some antibiotics even become toxic after expiration.
  • You could help create drug-resistant bacteria. Taking incomplete doses and using antibiotics when they’re not needed both contribute to antibiotic resistance, a growing problem that health officials are extremely concerned about. Consumer Reports CEO Marta L. Tellado has called this problem “the health crisis of our generation.”

What Parents Should Know

“An antibiotic should only be taken for the illness for which it was prescribed and by the patient it was prescribed to,” says Fleming-Dutra. That means communication with a pediatrician anytime your child is sick is essential, says Milanaik. 

  • Seek professional advice when you have a question about your child’s health. “A quick phone call to your healthcare clinician can help you understand when is the time to come in and how to treat each and every symptom,” Milanaik says. Your provider will be able to say if an antibiotic or other treatment is needed.
  • Don’t push for antibiotics. Physicians are much more likely to give unnecessary antibiotics if parents demand them, according to Fleming-Dutra. Instead of asking for the drugs, she says parents should ask: “How can I make my child feel better?” Sometimes the answer may just be time and rest.
  • Don’t leave a dose of antibiotics unfinished. “If you’re using leftover antibiotics ... it means you’re giving your child less than the needed dose,” both when you first stop a course of antibiotics early and when you give an incomplete dose to a newly sick child, says Larissa Grigoryan, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of Family and Community Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. It can be hard to get kids to take medication, but it’s important to always finish the full dose, according to clinicians. 
  • Ask your doctor if you want to try an alternate plan. If your child resists taking certain flavors or formulations of medication, ask a doctor or pharmacist if there’s another option. Some recent research has suggested shorter courses of antibiotics may be all that’s needed for some infections. If your child has been taking prescribed antibiotics for an infection and has been symptom-free for 24 to 48 hours, you can call your doctor to ask if they can stop taking the prescription—but never make this decision on your own, and never use the leftovers later.
  • Properly dispose of unused medication. For whatever reason, you may occasionally have leftover antibiotics or other prescriptions in your refrigerator or medicine cabinet. Instead of hanging on to these, you can get rid of them by mailing them in to pharmacies, using disposal kiosks in pharmacies, or safely disposing of them in the trash—mixed with something like kitty litter or coffee grounds—as a last resort. (Check out our guide to medication disposal.)