Viral Upper Respiratory Illness: does it get better with antibiotics?

My least favorite diagnosis is viral upper respiratory illness. I can’t fix it, and sleep-deprived parents, who are often sick themselves, aren’t usually pleased with it either. Believe me, I get it. I know what it’s like to have a sick kid, full of snot, coughing all night long, and acting like a gremlin during the day. And if that wasn’t enough, they get a fever and look so puny you just want to make it all better.


Then, you finally find a free second to have your kid checked out, and what do we tell you? More fluids, more rest, nasal suction.

Shut. Up.

Sometimes, though, just re-framing those teeth-gritting, frustrating symptoms, and understanding the timeline of a viral upper respiratory illness can help. Especially when you just don’t need an antibiotic.

The Science:

Kids under 6 have a viral upper respiratory illness about 8 times a year. Each one lasts about 14 days, and the cough symptom can last even longer. By then, your little angel has already caught another virus. Now, I am not a mathematician, but that’s pretty much sick for like 6 months straight…

Symptoms usually start about 1 – 2 days after exposure. Kids may have runny or stuffy noses, with clear, yellow, or green snot. Ew. Fever, sore throat, crankiness, and decreased appetite generally start around day 3.

The Reality:

This is when we usually see patients. The day 3 mark. And believe me, I get it. High fever is scary, and when your child tells you his neck hurts, we all have a tendency to freak out. But here’s the thing. Fever is good. It’s the body’s way of burning off the illness so kids get better faster, and every other symptom is a result of a child’s robust immune system. As the virus multiplies, the body recognizes it as bad, and mounts an “inflammatory response.” Basically, everything gets red, swollen, and gooey because the immune system sends extra blood and fighter cells to get rid of the virus.

Just remind yourself, days 3 – 5 tend to be the worst. Then, symptoms gradually start to improve, on their own, because your kid is a tough cookie, and is built to fight it, and fight it hard.

A super common misunderstanding I see, is the parent who says, “You said it was a viral upper respiratory illness, but my child got better after starting an antibiotic.” I am certainly not perfect, and more than happy to admit that sometimes I’m wrong (don’t tell my husband). But let’s take a closer look:

Your kid is sick, you bring him to KidMed after 3 days, we tell you viral upper respiratory illness, and you go home. The next day, he is still yucky, so you go to his pediatrician. The PCP says, “Yeah, green snot, here’s an antibiotic, start it tomorrow.” Like the good parent you are, you start it the next day, day 5, and on day 6 your kiddo feels better. Is he better because he started an antibiotic or is he better because it’s day 6, and he was going to be better anyway?

Antibiotics tend to make bacterial illnesses worse initially because the drug kills the germ. The germ then, in a desperate jerk attempt to survive, releases toxins that make symptoms worse. Viral upper respiratory illness starts improving on day 6. That’s biology, not antibiotics.

Antibiotics are AMAZING when they’re necessary. But, they can cause diarrhea, upset stomach, and even long-term health issues in kids when they are over-used. Not to mention, when we use them inappropriately the bad germs get worse.

The Solution:

KidMed has A TON of discharge information and symptom management tips and tricks to help kids feel better when they’re sick. Our pediatric providers are incredibly knowledgeable, so when we work together, as a team, your kiddo’s viral upper respiratory illness becomes more manageable.

You’re doing a great job. Parenting is hard. KidMed is here to help.


Categories: Uncategorized


  1. Extremely well written article with incredibly useful information!

    Nicely done, Emily ….. um …. I mean KidMedical Mom !


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

Comments support these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>