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Virus or bacteria: What’s making my child sick?

Type of illness matters because it changes treatment plan, health expert says

File photo (iStock Image)

When it comes to trying to figure out whether your child has a virus or a bacterial infection, it can be really tough.

According to Dr. Frank Esper, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, sometimes the symptoms seem the same, but they’re treated differently.

“There is a big difference between the two -- for the most part, viruses go away on their own, and your immune system is more than enough to take them out,” he said. “The bacteria, a lot of times, we have antibiotics for those, because bacterial infections can be more severe.”

Esper said the majority of the time, a random virus is to blame for a child’s cough, sore throat, or mild fever. But when a fever gets especially high, a bacterial infection may be to blame.

Many times, doctors will try to get on top of a bacterial infection by treating it with antibiotics, before it has the chance to become severe.

However, in the case of a virus, Esper said the best thing to do to let the illness run its course.

While it can be frustrating for parents to learn that an antibiotic won’t help their child feel better, Esper said over-using antibiotics, especially when they’re not useful, is problematic.

When we overuse antibiotics, the bacteria that they are meant to treat becomes more resistant, and those antibiotics are no longer useful.

Plus, Esper said, antibiotics are a “seek and destroy” medication, and they can destroy “good” gut bacteria, causing stomach and gastrointestinal upset.

“Eventually, it all gets back to your gut, and your gut is full of bacteria -- but, antibiotics do not know friend from foe,” he said. “It will kill the bad bacteria that’s causing a sinus infection, but it will also kill the good bacteria that’s in your gut, that’s there to help you digest.”

For parents who are unsure whether a child has a viral or bacterial infection, Esper said the best thing to do is call the child’s pediatrician.

He also reminds parents any time a baby under 2 months of age develops a temperature above 100.4, they should be seen by a physician.