Back to School: Kicking the Antibiotic Habit

By: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®

Year after year, parents, mostly moms, bring their children into my office seeking treatment for chronic ear, sinus, or respiratory infections. Their stories are remarkably similar — they have been bringing their child to their pediatrician or family doctor who has prescribed round after round of antibiotics, rarely, if ever, mentioning a cause for the recurrent infection or suggesting an alternative treatment plan.

In conventional medicine, the traditional thinking is deeply entrenched — the go-to treatment for any suspected infection is an antibiotic.

However, this approach is deeply flawed for several reasons, including the following:

  • Antibiotics are effective only for treating bacterial infections. Ear, sinus, and respiratory infections are often viral or fungal infections that antibiotics cannot clear up. Rarely do doctors test to determine the nature of the infection before prescribing an antibiotic.
  • Antibiotics kill both harmful and beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria are essential for healthy digestive and immune systems. The antibiotics your child is prescribed may do more harm than good in the long run.
  • Infections often occur in places that antibiotics cannot effectively reach or penetrate, such as the sinus cavities or lungs. When treatment stops, the infectious bacteria multiply causing a rebound infection that requires additional antibiotics to treat, further compounding the problem.
  • Overuse and misuse of antibiotics can lead to certain bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotic treatment. In fact, antimicrobial resistance has been recognized as one of the greatest threats to human health worldwide. Just one microbe, antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), kills more Americans every year (approximately 19,000) than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide combined.

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Note: Antibiotics are valuable for eliminating certain bacterial infections that pose serious and even life-threatening health risks. However, they should be used only with careful consideration. In most cases, boosting the body’s immune system, so it can eliminate the infection, is the better option.

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A Short-Term Solution with Long-Term Consequences

Assuming the infection is bacterial (a big assumption), antibiotics often provide only short-term relief. Routinely treating common childhood infections with antibiotics often creates a vicious cycle in which the infection becomes more frequent and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. Without an alternate treatment plan, doctors and parents resign themselves to the strong likelihood the infection will return soon after the prescription runs out.

What happens in these cases is that initially the antibiotic does its job — it kills most of the bacteria causing the infection. In many cases, however, the targeted bacteria reside in deep, dark passages, such as the sinus cavities or the lungs, which are difficult to reach. In addition, many infectious bacteria create a biofilm that prevents the antibiotic from reaching them. As a result, some of the infectious agents survive to fight another day, and when the antibiotic is stopped, the survivors, which now may be more resistant to the antibiotic, are free to multiply.

 

In the meantime, the repeated courses of antibiotics kill many of the beneficial (friendly) microbes in the child’s digestive tract and oral cavity. These beneficial microbes metabolize nutrients from food, produce certain vitamins, serve as a protective barrier against intestinal infections, and stimulate healthy and normal immune responses. Disrupting the sensitive balance of different microbes in the gut can compromise the integrity of the gut lining, resulting in leaky gut, which causes immune system dysfunction, often resulting in food allergies or sensitivities.

Recent studies of the gut-brain axis (GBA) also strongly suggest that the impact of antibiotics on gut microbes influences communication between the gut and the nervous system. The following text is from “The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems,” published in the Annals of Gastroenterology, April-June, 2015:

Strong evidence suggests that gut microbiota has an important role in bidirectional interactions between the gut and the nervous system. It interacts with the central nervous system (CNS) by regulating brain chemistry and influencing neuro-endocrine systems associated with stress response, anxiety and memory function.

With a weakened digestive and immune system and impaired communication between the gut and the CNS, the child becomes sick more often, and seemingly bizarre changes start to occur — perhaps an allergy to a previously tolerated food, which is quite common, or a skin rash that comes and goes. In some cases, a food that has always been a problem for the child remains in the diet and continues to weaken the child’s immune system.

Regardless of whether chronic infection and repeated antibiotic treatment caused the digestive issues or digestive and immune system dysregulation led to the chronic infections is a chicken or the egg dilemma that is unimportant. What is important is having an alternative approach that breaks the vicious cycle of infection-antibiotics and optimizes the child’s health.

A Better Approach: Boosting Your Child’s Immune System

Antibiotics should be used only when absolutely necessary, not every time someone gets an earache or sinus infection. A better approach to prevent and treat common infections is to boost the body’s immune system:

  1. Check for and eliminate any environmental mold in your homeand find out whether your child’s school or daycare has been tested. Exposure to mold can weaken your child’s immune system, resulting in persistent and recurring infections. Mold remediation can be expensive, but it will save your family’s health and budget in the long run.
  2. Keep your child well-hydrated with water, avoiding sugary drinks, including fruit juice.
  3. Include more vegetables in your child’s diet. While this alone may not be enough for a child already experiencing chronic infections, it can help prevent infections for those who are not yet as susceptible. It also goes a long way toward correcting a weakened immune system, along with additional treatment.
  4. Avoid packaged (processed) foods. Opt for whole foods, mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and quality, unprocessed meats. Processed foods have tons of sugar, which aggravates the digestive system and causes a gradual decline of the immune system.
  5. Consult a doctor who knows about nutritional healthto test for and address any nutritional deficiencies. Give your child only the nutritional supplements your doctor recommends and use only trusted brands.

I cannot stress enough the importance of using high-quality supplements. Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate nutritional supplements (not necessarily a bad thing), you do not always know what you’re getting. In 2015, U.S. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that his office sent letters to four major retailers (GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens) ordering them to stop selling store brand herbal supplements that either could not be verified to contain the labeled substance or were found to contain additional ingredients not listed on the label.

In my practice, I only use only brands I have vetted, so I know what to expect when I recommend them to a client. I often see children and adults who are taking supplements consistently, but when I run lab tests to show the level of the supplement in their bodies, it is either too low or too high. The lesson here is to never assume that what you are taking, even with the best intentions, is healthy. Get tested first, and then follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding brand and dose of any supplement your test results show that you or your child needs.

Resisting the Pressure to Place Your Child on Antibiotics

Parents are often under a lot of pressure to give their children antibiotics to treat infections. Why is that? Well first, no parent wants to see their child suffer, especially when a treatment is available that may relieve that suffering. Second, parents are often pressured by daycare providers, teachers, and others in their social circles to have the child diagnosed and treated; daycare centers and schools may even refuse a child entry until the child is symptom-free, which places additional pressure on working parents to seek out a quick fix. Finally, doctors often encourage parents to give their child an antibiotic either because the doctor thinks that is what the parents want or is afraid of what may happen if the child has a bacterial infection that has not been treated with an antibiotic.

To resist the pressure to place your child on antibiotics while ensuring you are taking a correct approach to your child’s health, take the following steps:

  1. Scale back the fear.Take a deep breath and decide as a family to do something different when it comes to protecting and preserving your child’s health. Many parents are afraid that if they question their pediatrician’s advice or refuse to give their child antibiotics they are doing something wrong or endangering their child. I am not advocating that parents ignore the pediatrician’s advice. I have two children and have benefitted greatly from our pediatrician’s advice. However, our pediatrician often says in a calm tone, “I know how you prefer to approach things, so we can watch and wait.” Our pediatrician knows that not every child, every time, needs a prescription for an antibiotic just because they have a cold or infection. She knows most conditions will resolve on their own. However, she also knows that most parents don’t want her to do nothing and that providing an alternative solution would be outside the guidelines presented in the insurance model, so she feels compelled to prescribe an antibiotic.
  2. Create a plan of action.Meet with your child’s natural healthcare provider to review your child’s complete medical history, diet, and environment (for example, for exposure to toxic mold). During this visit, your child’s natural healthcare provider should conduct a physical exam and order appropriate lab tests, such as a nasal swab, throat culture, blood tests, stool analysis, allergy testing, and nutrient testing. During a follow-up visit, your child’s natural healthcare provider should review the results of the tests and recommend a plan of action to boost your child’s immune function and have a plan in place to quickly respond to any signs or symptoms of infection as an alternative to reflex antibiotics.
  3. Keep supplements at home. The necessary ingredients for prevention and recovery should be kept at home just as you keep aspirin on hand, so you do not have to run to the pharmacy at the last minute or go online to find the right vitamin C. At my practice, we start treatment immediately to support the immune system and supply the patient with what is needed in case the infection returns. Using holistic methods can be very effective but must be started at the first sign of infection.
  4. Inform your child’s pediatrician of your plan to deal with infections.Having a solid plan in place for boosting your child’s immune system and responding at the first sign of infection provides your child’s pediatrician with the confidence to hold off on prescribing an antibiotic until your child’s body has had a chance to naturally eliminate the infection.

I encourage you to take the first step toward supporting your child’s long-term health by setting up an appointment for your child to see a functional medical doctor or other healthcare provider who recognizes the pros and cons of antibiotic treatment and offers alternative approaches to testing and treating infections and supporting immune system health. Don’t settle for quick fixes, which often result in chronic illnesses. Long-term solutions are more difficult and more expensive in the short-term, but you and your child will reap significantly greater health benefits and savings in the future. In my practice, I provide solutions for children and peace of mind to parents.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his Diplomate status in Clinical Nutrition from the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.

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