MadSci Network: Immunology

Re: Does taking Anti-biotics impede a child's immune system in any way?

Date: Mon Jan 12 04:14:09 2004
Posted By: Steven Reid, Staff, Immunology, IDRL
Area of science: Immunology
ID: 1073682054.Im

Thanks for the interesting question.  Although it is true that we over-
use antibiotics these days – for both human and veterinary care, used 
responsibly, antibiotics are incredibly useful.  Your colleagues are 
confused – leaving a bacterial infection will not develop a child’s 
immune system.  Don’t forget, before the advent of antibiotics, children 
died from bacterial infections – sore throats could become very serious 
or even fatal.  

Bacteria are everywhere – on our hands, hair, on surfaces etc.  Most of 
them don’t cause any harm.  Your colleagues are perhaps confusing the 
issue of having a super-clean environment and children with immunological 
problems like asthma.  There is evidence to suggest that keeping children 
in a too-clean environment doesn’t exactly help to give a balanced immune 
system.  But that’s completely different from leaving children with a 
bacterial infection which could have serious consequences.  Being exposed 
to bacteria in the environment is different from being infected by a 

When you get a bacterial infection your body begins to mount an immune 
response very quickly and the immune system will remember these bacteria 
if it should come across it again to make a faster and better immune 
response.  Taking antibiotics will not prevent the immune system from 
working – the antibiotics work by stopping the bacteria growing – not by 
stopping the immune system working.  Viruses do not respond to 
antibiotics and in most cases, an effective immune response is made to 
the virus too – whether in the presence of antibiotics or not.

Most upper respiratory infections in children are in fact viral and do 
not respond to antibiotics.  The main reason to use antibiotics judiciously is 
to prevent antibiotic resistance from developing.  People get an infection 
(whether viral or bacterial) and they often expect to receive antibiotics 
from their doctor – and some doctors comply even though they know that in 
all likelihood the antibiotics are useless.  Patients who don’t finish the 
course of antibiotics or who don’t take them properly and even though they 
recover from the infection antibiotic resistant bacteria develop.  These days, 
certainly in adults, doctors are trying to prescribe fewer antibiotics to try 
to stop resistance.  

If your child is sick and your healthcare provider suggests taking 
antibiotics then I should follow that advice.  Leaving a child with a 
bacterial infection is quite risky.  Of course the child may recover 
without any problems but perhaps not.  

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