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Viral Upper Respiratory Illness: Does It Get Better With Antibiotics?

Kid-Medical Journal title with image of medical professional writing a note

Our least favorite diagnosis is a viral upper respiratory illness. We can’t fix it, and sleep-deprived parents, who are often also sick, aren’t usually pleased with it either. 

Believe us, we get it. So many of us at KidMed are parents, too. So we 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.

Yeah, we know. But sometimes, just reframing those teeth-gritting, frustrating symptoms and understanding the timeline of a viral upper respiratory illness can help. Especially when you don’t need an antibiotic.

Kids under 6 can have a viral upper respiratory illness about 8 times a year. Each virus lasts about 14 days, and the cough symptom can last even longer. Of course, by then, your little angel has already caught another virus. 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.

This is when we usually see patients. The day 3 mark. A high fever is scary, and when your child tells you his neck hurts, we all tend 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 results from 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 that days 3 – 5 tend to be the worst. Then, symptoms gradually start to improve on their own because your kid is a tough cookie built to fight it and fight it hard.

A widespread misunderstanding is this scenario:  

A parent says, “You said it was a viral upper respiratory illness, but my child got better after starting an antibiotic.” We certainly are not perfect, and more than happy to admit that sometimes we may get it wrong. But let’s take a closer look…

Your child is sick. You bring them to KidMed after 3 days. We tell you it’s a viral upper respiratory illness, and you go home. They are still yucky the next day, so you go to their pediatrician. Their PCP says, “Yeah, green snot. Here’s an antibiotic, and start it tomorrow.” So, like the good parent that you are, you start it the next day (this is now day 5 of this scenario), and on day 6, your kiddo feels better. Are they better because they started an antibiotic? Or are they better because it’s day 6, and they would be better anyway?

Antibiotics initially worsen bacterial illnesses because the drug kills the germ. In a desperate jerk-attempt to survive, the germ then releases toxins that worsen symptoms. A 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.

KidMed prides itself on listening to parents and patients and educating them on diagnosis and treatment. We want you to feel informed before you leave our office. We have a ton of discharge information and symptom management tips and tricks to help kids feel better. In addition, our pediatric providers are incredibly knowledgeable, so your kiddo’s viral upper respiratory illness becomes more manageable when we work with you as a team.

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

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