Colds and flu are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are medicines used to treat bacterial infections and diseases. Colds and flu are caused by viruses.
Viruses are a type of tiny organism that can cause illness. When you have a cold, you may sneeze and have a blocked or a runny nose, a sore throat and a cough. Colds rarely cause serious harm, but they can still make you feel unwell. Colds usually get better in 7–10 days, but a cough can last up to three weeks. Influenza, commonly known as ‘the flu’, is different to a cold although both are caused by viruses. Flu symptoms usually start suddenly with a high fever and you may feel unwell and need to rest. You may have a dry cough, shivering, sweating and severe muscle aches.
Antibiotics are medicines used to treat diseases and infections caused by bacteria. Bacterial infections can affect the throat, lungs, skin, bowel, and many other parts of the body. While some infections are severe, many are mild. These diseases can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics interfere with the vital processes in bacteria, killing the bacteria or stopping them from multiplying. However, they do not work against viruses. Therefore, not all illnesses and diseases can be treated with an antibiotic.
Antibiotics don’t kill viruses
People who have a cold or the flu may think that antibiotics will help them get better faster. This is not true. Antibiotics do not kill viruses so will have no effect on viruses such as those causing colds or the flu. If you are normally healthy and well, your body can usually clear the viral infection causing the cold or flu by itself. Antibiotics will not help people get over a cold or flu faster, they won’t stop the infection from getting worse, and won’t prevent the infection being passed onto other people.
Possible side effects of antibiotic use
Antibiotics may cause side effects such as:
- stomach upsets
- allergic reactions
Protection against influenza
The yearly flu vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. It is ideal to have the flu vaccine in autumn each year. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for further information.
Self Care for colds and flu
Colds and flu usually get better on their own, but there are things that you can do:
- Get plenty of sleep and rest, and stay comfortably warm.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Carefully breathe in steam (e.g. from inhalations, vaporizers, showers, baths) to loosen mucus.
- Blow your nose gently with a tissue and dispose.
- Try drinking honey and lemon in warm water.
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.
- Wash children’s dummies and toys regularly.
- Avoid sharing eating or drinking utensils.
- Eat regular, healthy meals, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Limit foods high in salt, sugar, and fat.
- Keep hands away from nose, mouth, and eyes.
Overuse of antibiotics
If you use antibiotics when you don’t need to, such as treating colds and flu, it could make the antibiotic less effective when they are needed. This is called antibiotic resistance. When bacteria become antibiotic resistant, the antibiotic will no longer work against that infection. This can make infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria difficult to treat, last for a long time and spread to other people. According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is the third biggest threat to human health. Therefore, it is very important to only use antibiotics when appropriate. Do not expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for viral illnesses such as colds and flu. This will encourage the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
When antibiotics are needed
Certain people may be more likely to develop complications from respiratory tract infections. Complications are often bacterial infections that need antibiotics. People with chronic conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes, immune problems) are more likely to need an antibiotic to treat respiratory tract infections. There are illnesses that need to be treated with antibiotics. Pneumonia is a serious lung infection that can be caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will be prescribed if pneumonia is caused by bacteria. Always ask your doctor how long you need to take a prescribed antibiotic. It may not always be necessary to “Take until finished”.
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If you have a cold or the flu, speak with our pharmacists at Fresh Therapeutics. We can give you detailed information about colds and flu and suggest treatment and prevention options. We stock Self Care Fact Cards such as those titled Colds and flu, Coughs and Antibiotics.
NPS MedicineWise is a helpful consumer website that has information about colds and flu, antibiotics and antibiotic resistance, and bacteria. NPS MedicineWise can be found at www.nps.org.au The NPS holds an annual Antibiotic Awareness Week that encourages consumers to “Handle Antibiotics with Care”
Acknowledgement: Pharmaceutical Society of Australia: Self Care Health Column