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Colds and Flu: Antibiotics Won't Help

Antibiotics are powerful medicines, but they won’t cure a cold or flu. Learn more about when antibiotics are needed and the dangers of using them for the wrong reasons.

Cold weather can mean cold and flu season is just around the corner. When you or your child gets a scratchy throat and a runny nose, should you ask the doctor for antibiotics? Lots of people do, but it’s usually not a good idea.

Antibiotics are powerful medicines, but they won’t cure a cold or flu.

  • Colds and flus are caused by viruses.
  • Antibiotics can kill bacteria, but not viruses.

There are no benefits to taking antibiotics for a viral infection like a cold or flu. They won’t help you feel better, shorten the course of your illness or reduce the chance that you’ll pass your infection to someone else. And there’s one very real drawback.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria
There is an important reason not to take antibiotics if you don’t need them. It increases the chance that the drugs won’t work when you really do need them.

When you take an antibiotic, weaker bacteria are killed off. However, a few bacteria that can resist the drug may survive. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria then multiply and can be passed on to other people. Over time, with exposure to different antibiotics, bacteria may become impossible to treat because they don’t respond to any available drugs.

The growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a major threat to public health. You can help by using antibiotics wisely.

Know when to use antibiotics
Antibiotics can fight illnesses caused by bacteria, such as:

  • Strep throat
  • Some ear infections
  • Some sinus infections
  • Some types of pneumonia

If you have a common cold or flu, don’t ask your doctor to give you antibiotics. Instead, take steps to help yourself feel better. Get plenty of rest, drink extra fluids, use saline nose drops and gargle with warm salt water.

Know how to use antibiotics
If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic:

  • Take it exactly as prescribed. Don’t skip doses.
  • Don’t stop taking it just because you start to feel better. You need to take the full course of medicine to get rid of the infection.
  • Throw leftover medicine away. Don’t save it for future use or give it to anyone else.

Written by tombill