SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

October 2018

Coughing in Children: When Does My Child Need Antibiotics?

Do you know when children (and grown-ups too) should take antibiotics and when it could do more harm than good? Let’s find out!

Due to the misuse of antibiotics, antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels across the world and in Singapore. As a result, a growing number of infections, such as pneumonia, are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics used to treat them become less effective. It’s bad news for everybody, but especially so for the more vulnerable groups of people including young children. How can we combat this problem? Well, let’s start by figuring out when we really need antibiotics and when they’re not needed. What would you do in the following situations?


Scenario #1: Runny and Stuffy Nose

“My eight-year-old granddaughter had a cold and kept sneezing during the September holidays. Her nose was either runny or blocked, so I took her to the GP,” said 54-year-old Mdm P. Goh, who looked after her grandkids while their parents were at work. “The doctor said it was just the common cold and gave her some medicine for the nasal congestion. I asked him to give her antibiotics so that she could get well faster before the new term starts.”

Need antibiotics?

Mdm Goh was wrong on two counts. First, antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. However, the common cold is caused by a virus, so antibiotics would not help. And like many Singaporeans, she had the misconception that antibiotics speed up recovery for flu and the common cold. This isn’t true. Viral upper respiratory tract infections typically resolve by themselves within three to 10 days. What Mdm Goh’s granddaughter needed was some medicine to help alleviate her nasal congestion. Also, rather than asking the doctor for antibiotics, she should have asked if antibiotics are necessary.

Scenario #2: Cough and Sore Throat

a&e - ill child

“My four-year-old daughter was coughing really badly, and said her throat was very painful. She had no appetite and the coughing kept her up at night,” said Jenny Wong, a 36-year-old sales associate. “Her paediatrician told her to drink more water, and prescribed cough syrup and antihistamines, but no antibiotics. I wanted him to give antibiotics so that the throat infection can be cured, but he said no need.”

Need antibiotics? ❌

Just like Mdm Goh, Jenny thought that antibiotics could help cure her daughter’s cough and sore throat. However, just like flu, colds and coughs are commonly caused by viruses that will run their course. The doctor would only have prescribed antibiotics if the cough was a result of a bacterial infection. Based on the doctor’s diagnosis, cough syrup and antihistamines would be enough to alleviate the discomfort felt by Jenny’s daughter while her body fights the infection.

Scenario #3: The Dreaded Flu

antibiotics - family

45-year-old manager Jason Pang’s entire family came down with the flu last month. “It started with my 11-year-old daughter, then my eight-year-old son got it. Even me and my wife came down sick after taking the kids to the doctor!” he said. “At the polyclinic, the doctor gave my kids some paracetamol for the fever, cough syrup and some other medicines. My wife asked if they need antibiotics because the last time my son was sick, he recovered soon after taking antibiotics. The doctor said no, because they had caught a flu virus this time.”

Need antibiotics?

The symptoms of influenza, or flu for short, can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches and even headaches and fatigue. Even though it can make you feel really miserable, the flu will usually resolve on its own. The doctor advised on the best course of action, which is to take medicines that provide symptomatic relief. Antibiotics would not have helped Jason’s kids recover any faster this time, and instead would have exposed them to the risk of side effects. Also, the best way to avoid spreading and catching the flu bug is to practise good hygiene habits such as washing your hands regularly.

Scenario #4: Persistent Cough and Fever

“Last year, my 11-year-old son had a cough that wouldn’t go away. I thought it wasn’t very serious at first, but then his fever kept coming back and the cough got worse even after seeing the GP. He kept complaining of earache too, so we went back to the doctor,” said 43-year-old Ching Li Lin, a stay-at-home mum. “This time, the doctor did a blood test and said he had a mycoplasma infection, a mild type of pneumonia. Thankfully, with a course of antibiotics, he eventually recovered and could go back to school.”

Need antibiotics? 

Li Lin’s son had an infection caused by the bacteria Mycoplasma Pneumoniae, which is routinely treated with antibiotics. Sometimes a bacterial infection is a secondary infection. This means that you were first infected by a virus, but a bacterial infection sets in after that because your immunity is already compromised. You may have symptoms similar to flu symptoms, but they persist longer and often get progressively worse. Sinusitis, ear infections and pneumonias are common examples of such secondary bacterial infections.

(See also: Interview with an Antibiotic Pill)

antibiotics - pillsSource

Antibiotics: To Take or Not to Take?

Did you get the answers correct? If so, well done! You and your family members are probably already only taking antibiotics when prescribed by a doctor. Which means you’re helping in the fight against yucky ‘superbugs’!

What are ‘superbugs’ and how did ‘normal’ bugs evolve to having superpowers? Well, it turns out that when we take antibiotics unnecessarily, the remaining germs in our bodies change and become resistant to the antibiotics that were used.

The next time you or your kids fall ill, just talk to your doctor about whether antibiotics are required. Don’t insist on antibiotics if your doctor says it’s not necessary. Remember, antibiotics are not a quick fix, especially if they’re the wrong fix!

For more information about the dos and don’ts of antibiotics, visit


No antibiotics were abused in creating this post, brought to you in collaboration with Health Promotion Board, Singapore

All content from this article, including images, cannot be reproduced without credits or written permission from SingaporeMotherhood.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram for the latest article and promotion updates.

Coughing in Children: When Does My Child Need Antibiotics?