Parents are Hoarding Leftover Antibiotics. That’s a Problem.

By Rhiannon Collette

In a recent survey, nearly half of parents reported holding on to leftover antibiotics after completing a course of treatment and often distributing the medications to other sick members of their household without consulting a doctor first.

That can be hugely problematic for many reasons, according to Dr. Michael Chang, UTHealth pediatric infectious diseases specialist who is affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.

According to Dr. Chang, antibiotics lose their potency over time. Antibiotics that are suspended in liquids, like those often given to children, can degrade as quickly as two weeks from the time they were formulated.

“Even though parents think they may be able to use the same antibiotic to treat an illness later on, it probably won’t work because it’s no longer as effective,” Dr. Chang said.

Sharing Prescription Medications Can Lead to Drug Overdoses

“Because dosage is tailored to an individual’s weight, giving the same medication to another member of the household could lead to under-medicating or over-medicating that individual,” he said.

“The amount of antibiotic prescribed for an adult would definitely be too much medication for a small child, creating potentially dangerous side effects or complications from giving the wrong dose,” Dr. Chang said.

Additionally, parents may be inadvertently giving leftover medication to someone in the household who really doesn’t need an antibiotic.

“Many illnesses, such as colds and flus, are caused by viruses, and an antibiotic will be ineffective in treating them,” Dr. Chang said.  “That can lead to antibiotic resistance down the road because the bacteria in our bodies can become resistant to the medication. When you do need an antibiotic, it might not work, which may require a second line antibiotic instead. In some cases, we may not have any antibiotic that would work.”

Encouraging the Proper Use and Disposal of Antibiotics

In the anonymous online survey of nearly 500 parents, 48 percent of parents reported keeping antibiotics instead of disposing them properly. Of those who reported saving the medications, nearly 75 percent said they doled them out to others, including children in the household. The report, which generated headlines during U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week, underscored why physicians need to have conversations with their patients about the appropriate use and disposal of antibiotics.

“We know that people sometimes don’t complete their course of treatment because they start to feel better after a few days on medication, but it’s important to take antibiotics as prescribed because that’s what we know will lead to the best outcomes,” he said. “You don’t want to get into a situation where you are killing most of the bacteria, but not all of it, which could lead to antibiotic resistance, or allowing the infection to return.”

If parents do have unused antibiotics, they should dispose of them promptly and properly. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration periodically hosts drug take-back events, where they collect prescription medications. Some retail pharmacies also accept medications for disposal.

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