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The Antibiotics Lowdown

Whether your child gets an earache, a sinus infection, or strep throat, antibiotics might be the best treatment. But these wonder drugs aren't doing the job they did ten years ago. For such common conditions as ear infections, doctors often have to double the dose (increasing the risk of side effects) or order a second type that's more powerful but sometimes harder to tolerate. How did we get to this point?

"Bad bacteria have figured out how to outsmart and outmuscle antibiotics," says Richard Besser, M.D., former medical director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's antibiotics education program. Unfortunately, in most cases antibiotic resistance isn't slowing down  -- and there are no major antibiotics on the near horizon.

Children are on the front lines of this battle. They're more likely to be prescribed antibiotics  -- and to encounter drug-resistant bacteria  -- than adults. The effects can be quite direct: If your child develops an infection a few weeks or months after following a course of antibiotics, the chances of its being a resistant type is higher than if he hadn't taken them.

So, many doctors are taking a new tack. By limiting prescriptions to when they're really needed, they believe, resistant strains will disappear over time. But they need you: Pediatricians prescribe antibiotics 65 percent of the time if they think parents expect them, but only 12 percent if they feel parents don't, studies show.

So when can antibiotics really help your child? The best way to treat  -- and prevent  -- four potentially serious illnesses.

Maureen Connolly is coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide.