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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 why you shouldn't take them if you don't need them.

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Picture of man with cold or flu Colds and Flu: Antibiotics Won't Help

Fall means kids are back in school. It also means 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 flu 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 harder 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

Antibiotics won't work for viral infections, such as:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Most coughs and bronchitis
  • Sore throat (unless it's caused by strep throat)

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.
  • Dispose of leftover medicine safely. Don't save it for future use or give it to anyone else.
By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 10/19/2007
Updated on 04/25/2011
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The problem of antimicrobial resistance.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic resistance questions and answers.
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Common cold.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get smart: know when antibiotics work.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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