When was the last time you were sick? Sometimes when we’re sick, we take over-the-counter medications to feel better. Sometimes, though, we need to go see the doctor. Why? There are some illnesses that can only be fought with the help of special medicines that doctors must prescribe for us.

For example, strep throat is a common illness that many children face each year. What starts out as a sore throat may progress to a fever, a headache, and other symptoms. Since strep throat is caused by bacteria that doctors can identify with a simple test, a visit to the doctor is usually necessary to get a prescription for a special type of medicine called an antibiotic.

Used since the 1940s, antibiotics are special drugs that help us feel better by battling the harmful bacteria that can cause various illnesses. Because there are so many types of harmful bacteria in the world, scientists have developed thousands of antibiotics and more continue to be invented every year.

When you go to the doctor, you won’t always get an antibiotic prescribed for you. Sometimes the illness you have will be caused by a virus. Because viruses rarely, if ever, respond to antibiotics, doctors will usually not prescribe an antibiotic if they believe your illness is caused by a virus.

Although it can be disappointing to go to the doctor only to be sent away without a prescription for a medicine to make you feel better, it’s best to use antibiotics sparingly. Doctors have noticed in recent years that overusing antibiotics can lead to the development of resistant bacteria.

For example, let’s say you have an illness caused by a virus. If you take antibiotics, they won’t kill the virus causing your illness. To the extent that you have a few harmful bacteria in your system, these bacteria get used to the presence of antibiotics and, over time, they can learn how to resist the effects of antibiotics. Scientists call this bacterial or antibiotic resistance.

The more resistant bacteria become, the harder they are to kill. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, doctors may have to give you higher doses of stronger antibiotics to kill these resistant bacteria. Higher doses of stronger antibiotics often have more side effects, and it can take longer to cure illnesses.

Is antibiotic resistance really a big deal? It is! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called antibiotic resistance “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” Many diseases that were once easily treated with antibiotics have become harder to treat today. Examples of such diseases include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis, and tuberculosis.

29 Join the Discussion

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    • We are so glad that you enjoyed today’s Wonder, Max! Check back with us tomorrow to find out if your Wonder Prediction was correct! Keep WONDERing, Wonder Friend! :-)

    • That’s a great thought, Charlotte! Unfortunately, we sometimes use antibiotics when we don’t have a bacterial infection, and that is why many antibiotics don’t work as well as they should. Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :-)

  1. Dear Wonderopolis,

    Thanks for today’s wonder. We predict tomorrow’s wonder of the day will be about the future OR about time travelling.

    Thanks so much,
    Ms. Davidson’s Science B

    • You are very welcome, Ms. Davidson’s Science B Class! What a great Wonder Prediction for Tomorrow’s Wonder! Be sure to check back to find out if you were correct! Keep WONDERing Wonder Friends! :-)

    • Hello, Mrs. Johnson’s 4th graders! Unfortunately, resistant bacteria can be deadly. That is why it is important to understand the differences between a virus and a bacterial infection. Be sure to communicate all of your symptoms to your doctor when you are sick. You don’t want to treat a virus with an antibiotic. Thanks for WONDERing with us today, Wonder Friends!

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,

    Thanks for today’s wonder. We predict that tomorrow’s wonder of the day will be about people going into the future OR about travelling back in time.

    Thanks so much,
    Ms. Davidson’s Science A

    • Hello to Ms. Davidson’s Science A class! We are so glad to have you WONDERing with us today! Please check back with us tomorrow to find out if your Wonder Prediction was correct! Keep WONDERing! :-)

  3. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We enjoyed the wonder for today. We predict tomorrow’s wonder of the day will be about the future OR adventures in the future.

    Thanks so much,
    Ms. Davidson’s Science C

    • WONDERful, Ms. Davidson’s Science C Class! We are so glad that you enjoyed today’s Wonder! Check back with us tomorrow to find out if your Wonder Prediction was correct. Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :-)

  4. We are still WONDERing:

    – What plant or tree do antibiotics come from?
    – How many types of antibiotics are there?
    – What is the strongest antibiotic?
    – Is your daily vitamin considered an antibiotic?

    • What WONDERful Wonder Questions from Ms. Tesa’s Class! We think antibiotics are actually made from other forms of bacteria and molds. Ewww… ;-) Thanks for WONDERing with us today, Wonder Friends!

    • That is true, Ethan! A lot of what makes us sick has become resistant to our medicines. Thanks for WONDERing with us today, Wonder Friend! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why are there so many antibiotics?
  • What is antibiotic resistance?
  • Can antibiotics treat every illness?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Knowing a thing or two about antibiotics can help you when you get sick in the future. Keep learning more by checking out the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Have you ever had to take an antibiotic? If you have, it may have been a liquid you had to drink. Or it could have been a pill to swallow. It may have even been administered with a needle via a shot. Revisit a past Wonder of the Day to learn why all medicine can’t be swallowed!
  • Want to learn more about microbes and the harm they can cause? Visit e-Bug online to find information, quizzes, and games that can help you understand microbes, the harm they can do, and how they can be battled effectively.
  • Up for a challenge? Do some Internet research on the types of bacteria that are extremely resistant to modern antibiotics. Read What Are Superbugs? to learn what they are, how common they are, and what, if anything, can be done to fight them.

Still Wondering

Science NetLinks’ Antibiotic Attack interactive activity helps students look at the pros and cons of using antibiotics to treat illness.

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