Ask any doctor if you should take antibiotics for the flu, and you’ll get a
weary shake of the head and a resounding no. “Viral infections like the
flu aren’t affected by antibiotics,” says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of
the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s School of
Medicine in Nashville. “You might as well take a placebo.”
Instead, antiviral medication can be used to treat the viral infections like
the flu. But that is a different type of medicine than antibiotics.
Even so, it’s not quite as cut and dried as it might seem. People
can get bacterial complications from the flu. And these can be
quite serious -- even life-threatening -- unless treated with
antibiotics. The flu and its complications hospitalize about 200,000
people a year in the U.S. and kill about 36,000. Secondary bacterial
complications are the main culprits.
So how’s a person to know whether he or she just has the flu virus, or
something worse that needs treatment? WebMD turned to the experts to find
Who Needs Antibiotics for Flu Complications?
When you have the flu, your body’s immune system may be weakened. The
lungs become irritated and inflamed. Both make is easier for bacteria to
invade your body. What kind of bacterial complications can develop?
Pneumonia, infection of the lungs
Bronchitis, infection of the airways that lead to the lungs
Sinusitis, infection of the sinuses
Ear infections, which are most common in children
The most worrying, and most common, is pneumonia. “Bacterial pneumonia
is the most likely cause of death in older people with the flu,” says Christine
Hay, MD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It
can be a serious problem for young children with the flu as well.”
Who’s most at risk? The odds that you’ll end up with a bacterial
complication depend on several factors. If you’re a healthy young adult,
the chances are low. But the flu and its complications are considered
high risk for people who:
Are pregnant during flu season
Are over 50 years old
Are under 2 years old
Have a chronic lung disease such as asthma, bronchitis, or other
Have heart or kidney disease
Have diabetes or another metabolic disorder
Have severe anemia
Have a suppressed immune system, either from a disease or its
Live in a nursing home or care facility
If you fit any of these categories, you need to be especially aware of the
signs of a secondary bacterial infection. And, of course, you need to get
the flu vaccine unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
How Do I Know if I Need Antibiotics for Flu Complications?
But here’s the problem: How is a person who’s laid up in bed, coughing and
miserable, to know whether he or she has the flu or a bacterial complication
from the flu? Since the symptoms are so similar, it can be hard to tell.