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What about antibiotics?

antibiotics; medicine; bacteria; viruses; medication; immune; disease; infection;


What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are types of medicines that will search out and destroy bacteria (say bak-teer-i-a) that make you sick.

Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered and was made from mould!

Antibiotics can work very well against bacteria, but they don't work against viruses.

Do you know…

  1. Who discovered penicillin?
  2. Who made the first penicillin?
  3. Who found the way to produce enough penicillin to save thousands of soldiers' lives during World War 2?
    (The answers are at the bottom of this topic)

What are bacteria?

  • Bacteria are very tiny single cell organisms, which can live anywhere - on and in bodies, in water, in the ground and on anything you can touch.
  • You need a very powerful microscope to be able to see them.
  • antibioticsThey can grow anywhere they can find the food they need, which is everywhere that is not sterile (too clean for germs).
  • Most bacteria do not make you sick but some can cause lots of illnesses when they get into a body - illnesses like some ear infections, tonsillitis and food poisoning.
  • Some can cause health problems when they make a toxin (poison) that gets carried around the body and makes you sick.
  • If you get a cut and don't clean it, bacteria can make the place where you cut yourself sore, and can also spread to other parts of your body making you feel headachy, hot and sick, or even worse.
  • Not all bacteria are the bad guys. Some bacteria live inside our bodies and help to digest food, make vitamins like vitamin K, and help to fight against other harmful bacteria.

What is a virus?

Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. They can live outside the body for a short time but they need to be in a body to grow. They get into a body cell and feed from it, then they divide again and again to make more viruses.

Antibiotics cannot kill viruses.

Some illnesses caused by viruses are measles, chickenpox, colds and 'flu.

The good news is that kids can be immunised against some of the viruses that used to cause kids to get very sick or even die, not all that long ago. Are you immunised against hepatitis B, whooping cough, chicken pox and measles? See our topic on Immunisation if you want to know more.


How antibiotics work

Your body has its own immune system. It's like an army which is there ready to defend you against an invasion by harmful bacteria.

antibioticsWhen bacteria come into your body, your body makes anti-bodies, which act like soldiers to search out and destroy the enemy.

Antibiotics are chemicals which can help your body win the battle by killing the harmful bacteria cells or stopping them from growing.
They can recognise the enemy because the cells of bacteria are different to the cells in your body.

Once the bacteria have been killed, your body's immune system sets to work to clean up all the dead bacteria and get them out of your body.

Antibiotics don't work against viruses because the virus gets into your own body cells and hides there - a bit like a soldier not being able to recognise the enemy because he isn't wearing the right uniform.

Antibiotics can help

antibioticsThese are a few of the times when antibiotics might be able to help your immune system fight off harmful bacteria which try to invade your body:

  • some middle ear infections
  • some tonsillitis infections
  • some infections inside cuts or wounds
  • some skin problems like impetigo (school sores).

Sometimes asthma can be triggered by an infection, but this is usually a virus infection, so antibiotics can't help.

Your doctor will know when antibiotics can help and which one to use.

When you don't need antibiotics

antibioticsBecause your body has its own immune system to fight off bacteria, most illnesses will get better after a while. As your immune system fights off harmful bacteria, it gets stronger and better. Your doctor knows when antibiotics will help and when it is better to let your body defend itself.

Sometimes antibiotics don't work any more. This is because the bacteria have learned how to defend themselves against that chemical. It will take a different antibiotic to get rid of the bacteria.

Unfortunately, scientists are not finding many new antibiotics to help keep us safe if the harmful bacteria are not 'defeated' by the antibiotics we already have. In the past antibiotics have been overused and there are increasing problems with infections that antibiotics can't defeat.

Also remember that antibiotics don't work to kill viruses and many illnesses we have are caused by viruses - like colds and gastro. Your doctor will not give you antibiotics for these infections. Your body's immune system is able to overcome the viruses without help.

You can help by:

  • antibioticsimmunising against infections like tetanus and whooping cough
  • taking care of your hygiene by washing your hands before eating, being careful about preparing food and looking after it
  • keeping your body clean
  • not swimming in dirty water
  • always washing cuts and grazes
  • taking all your medicine properly, even if it tastes yukky!

My grandma always said that the worse a medicine tastes, the better it is for you! Thank goodness that nowadays most medicine tastes OK or it comes as a tablet, because medicine certainly did taste awful when she was a kid!

Dr Kim says:

Dr Kim If you are sick then take things easy and get plenty of rest so that your body can concentrate on fighting off the bacteria.

Infections can sometimes pass on to someone else, so it is really important to use your own towel and face washer, throw used tissues, bandages and bandaids in the bin, and keep your hands clean. Sharing with friends and family is great, but do you really want to share infections? I don't think so!

Answers to 'Do you know?'

  1. Who discovered penicillin?
    Alexander Fleming in 1928. He was a bacteriologist.
  2. Who made the first penicillin?
    Howard Florey, a pathologist (who was born in Australia) and Ernst Chain, a biochemist.
  3. Who found the way to produce enough penicillin to save thousands of soldiers' lives during World War 2?
    Andrew Moyer and Dr Norman Heatley.

Kids talking

antibiotics"I'm on antibiotics right now. I am on my third lot. I had two of the same kind but I wasn't better so my doctor gave me another kind of antibiotic and I'm feeling much better now."

"I'm allergic to penicillin. It can make me really, really ill. I have to have a different kind of antibiotic if I need one."

"When I was a baby I had a bad virus. There was nothing that could make me better but my own body, and it did!"

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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