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Antibiotics and Colds

If you have a cold and feel lousy, of course you want an antibiotic to help you feel better. Many people turn to their health care providers and say, "I need an antibiotic." But, antibiotics don't work for the common cold, which is caused by viruses. Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. Taking an antibiotic unnecessarily can be dangerous to your health and can increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. When bacteria become resistant to medicine, the medicine won't work as well, or at all. 

Antibiotics Can't Treat the Common Cold

Antibiotics fight bacteria-related illnesses. Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics won't help a cold. They may even do you harm. For example, some people (about one in every 40,000) can have an allergic reaction that could be fatal. Also, taking antibiotics unnecessarily has led to the growth of several strains of common bacteria that are now antibiotic resistant. For these and other reasons, it is important to only use antibiotics in situations where they are needed.

Antibiotics Do Treat Bacterial Infections

Antibiotics are needed to treat infections and illnesses that are caused by bacteria. For example, they are used to treat such illnesses as bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, bacterial ear infection,and pink eye. When they are used properly, antibiotics can save people's lives.

Sometimes a bacterial infection will follow a cold virus. Signs that you may have a bacterial infection after a cold are pain around the face and eyes that may worsen when bending over and coughing up thick yellow or green mucus. These symptoms may also occur with a cold. But if they last for more than a week or are severe, you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.

Only your health care provider can prescribe antibiotics. So talk to your health care provider if you think you might need them. 

Antibiotic Resistance

According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing public health problems. When bacteria are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics, for example when you take an antibiotic for common colds or take them too frequently, the germs in your body change. This may allow them to completely repel the antibiotic. When that happens, your illness will linger with no signs of getting better. Or your illness could suddenly take a turn for the worse. You may have to seek emergency medical care and even be admitted to the hospital and have several different antibiotics administered through an IV. Those around you may also get the resistant bacteria and come down with a similar illness that is difficult to treat.

Taking Antibiotics Responsibly

Here are three things to remember when you are thinking about taking antibiotics:

  • Listen to your health care provider. Your health care provider will determine if you have a bacterial infection or a virus and will prescribe antibiotics, if necessary. 
  • Use antibiotics as prescribed. Take all the medicine prescribed for your illness on time as directed. If there are pills left when your treatment ends, don't save them "just in case" you might get sick later on. Safely discard any remaining pills.
  • Don't share medicine. Don't give antibiotics to anyone else, and don't take someone else's antibiotic. All antibiotics are not the same. When you need one, it's important that you take the right antibiotic for your condition.


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 08, 2012
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