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Antibiotic Alert

It's bound to happen  -- one day, your baby is the picture of health, and the next, he's cranky, spiking a fever, and has an unstoppable runny nose. If your first inclination is to ask for an antibiotic, you may be surprised when your pediatrician says no. But antibiotics won't always help because they only kill bacteria, not viruses.

Viruses cause most coughs and sore throats. Using an antibiotic to treat this type of infection simply won't work. What's more, it could mean that the next time your baby has a bacterial illness, it may be harder to cure with antibiotics. To help prevent this scary scenario, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other groups have launched the new "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work" campaign. Here's what parents need to know.

? Recognize the difference: Most illnesses are caused by one of two types of germs  -- bacteria or viruses. Bacteria cause some ear and sinus infections, strep throat, and some pneumonia. These can be cured with antibiotics. Viruses, on the other hand, cause the common cold and the flu. Your baby recovers from these basic viral infections when the illness has run its course. Using antibiotics to treat a virus won't cure the infection, help your child feel better, or keep others from catching his illness.

? Talk to your doctor: Even when you know the difference between a bacterial and viral infection, you can't always tell which is causing your baby's illness. That's why it's important to consult your pediatrician. She'll examine your baby, run tests if necessary, and then make a diagnosis and recommend treatment.

? Use antibiotics properly: If the pediatrician determines that your baby has a bacterial infection and prescribes an antibiotic, follow the dosing schedule and finish the medicine, even if he seems to be feeling better. Never save an antibiotic to use again in the future. Using only part of the prescription means that only part of the infection has been treated and can cause resistant bacteria to develop. Also, never give your baby an antibiotic that was prescribed for another family member.

? Immunize your baby: One of the most important things you can do to protect him is make sure he gets all the recommended vaccinations on schedule. Fully immunizing him can reduce the likelihood that he'll get an infection for which antibiotics would be prescribed. Your pediatrician can tell you which shots your little one needs and when he needs to get them.

To learn more about antibiotics, contact your pediatrician or visit the "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work" website at