Will antibiotics get rid of my cold or flu?
The simple answer is no!
Antibiotics are a very powerful class of medicines that are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. However, antibiotics have been over-used by doctors and over-demanded by patients and parents.
Taking antibiotics when there isn’t a need, for example for viral infections, can affect your body’s ability to fight off bacterial infections, and reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics when they are indicated. This is when bacteria are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic and continue to cause harm – making it difficult or impossible to treat (known as antibiotic resistance).
Deaths from antibiotic resistant bacteria are increasing considerably. Sepsis is a common cause of death in the UK with over 37,000 deaths each year; many of these deaths are due to untreatable antibiotic resistant infections.
Antibiotic resistance has also led to the rise of “superbugs”. These are strains of bacteria that have developed resistance to many different types of antibiotics. They include:
• Meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
• Clostridium difficile (C. diff)
• The bacteria that cause multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB)
The failure to develop new antibiotics is of great concern as antibiotic resistance is life-threatening, with young and old being most at risk of resistant infections.
Colds and flu are viral infections, and antibiotics only kill bacteria – not viruses.
Most people with symptoms of cold or flu can treat themselves with painkillers and/or natural remedies. However, if the symptoms are prolonged, people often seek help from their GP, expecting that antibiotics can help them recover faster. It isn’t that easy though, as the problem is that without laboratory tests, a doctor is not able to tell for certain if you need antibiotics.
Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a local GP and the CCG lead for unplanned care, said people often go to their doctor expecting antibiotics as a matter of course.
“Naturally, no one likes feeling ill, and they genuinely believe taking antibiotics will make them feel better quicker,” said Dr Jaggs-Fowler. “However, antibiotics won’t get rid of your cold or even flu. For most people, colds and flu are unpleasant, but self-limiting illnesses, and with simple measures such as paracetamol, cold and flu remedies, decongestants, cough syrups and plenty of rest, people will start to feel better within a week or so.
“Antibiotics are powerful medicines that have been over-used for many years. This means that when they are needed, they are less likely to work. Indeed, some bacterial infections are now difficult or impossible to treat.
“So, as the cold and flu season kicks in, remember that antibiotics are not the right treatment for colds or flu and spread the word to your family and friends.”
The best way to treat most colds, coughs and sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids and to rest. Colds and symptoms that come with it can last up to two weeks and may end with a cough bringing up phlegm. This is normal and some symptoms may last even longer.
There are many over-the-counter remedies to ease the symptoms so ask your pharmacist for advice, especially if it is a child you are looking to give remedies. Remember that antibiotics are not the right treatment for colds or flu.
Here is a short list of things you may need to treat the most common flu symptoms (fever, headache, cough, muscle aches, sore throat ad a runny/stuffy nose):
• Pain and fever relievers (ibuprofen, aspirin or Paracetamol – age restrictions apply so read the label or ask your pharmacist)
• Cough syrups and drops
• Nasal sprays
• Decongestants (may contain pain relief – check with pharmacist)
• Fluids (water or herbal teas – avoid caffeine and heavily sugared drinks)
• Plenty of rest
Remember, your pharmacist can best advise you on the treatments you need for colds and flu.
If your cold lasts for more than two weeks and you don’t feel any better, you become breathless or have chest pains, or already have a chest complaint, see your GP.
Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics when you need them, for example for a kidney infection or pneumonia, or if you have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and have a chest infection.
Antibiotics may be life-saving for infections such as meningitis. By not using them unnecessarily, they are more likely to work when we need them.
Take a look at the Public Health England video on YouTube that explains antibiotic resistance further: