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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Can Antibiotics Treat My Cold?

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You've got a cold and feel lousy. Maybe you already tried some over-the-counter meds. Time for something stronger, you think. Can antibiotics do the trick?

Here's the plain truth: Colds are caused by viruses, and no antibiotic in the world can fight one. They only treat an infection that's brought on by another small living thing -- bacteria.

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Why Taking Antibiotics for a Cold Can Be a Problem

It might not seem like you're doing any harm if you take a medicine even though it doesn't treat your cold, but it can. When people take antibiotics when they don't have to, over time, the medicine becomes less effective. Someday you'll really need one because you've got an illness caused by a bacteria, but it won't work.

The reason has to do with the bacteria themselves. They can be sneaky. When they come into contact over and over with antibiotics, they may change in order to survive.

These new strains are "resistant" to some types of antibiotics. If you get an infection with one of these bacteria, your doctor may need to try several types of drugs until he finds one that works. You could get a lot sicker while you wait for the one that can treat you.

When Antibiotics Can Help

When they're used the right way, antibiotics can save lives. For example, they can treat bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, ear infection, and pinkeye -- as long as they're caused by bacteria.

Sometimes, you get infected with a bacteria after you've got a cold. Some signs of this are pain around your face and eyes that may get worse when you bend over. You might also cough 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 doctor can prescribe antibiotics. Talk to him if you think you might need them.

Take Antibiotics Responsibly

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

Listen to your doctor. He'll let you know if you're sick because of a virus or a bacteria and will prescribe antibiotics if you need them.

Follow instructions carefully. Finish all the medicine your doctor asks you to take and stick to the schedule. If there are pills left when your treatment ends, don't save them "just in case" you might get sick later on.

Don't share medicine. Never give antibiotics to anyone else, and don't take someone else's drugs. They're not the same. When you need one, it's important that you take the right medicine for your condition.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 05, 2014
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