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A Cold or the Flu?

Cold and Flu Season: No Reason for Antibiotics

Colds, flu, and most sore throats and bronchitis are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not help fight viruses. And they may do more harm than good: taking antibiotics when they are not needed - and cannot treat the illness - increases the risk of a resistant infection later.

Antibiotics Are Not for Colds and Flu

  • Most infections are caused by two main types of germs - bacteria and viruses.
    • Bacteria are organisms found almost anywhere, except normally sterile sites, such as the blood stream and spinal fluid. A few bacteria, known as pathogens, can cause diseases in humans, animals, and plants.
    • Viruses are organisms that cause disease by invading healthy host cells. As virus particles multiply, the host cells burst, allowing the viruses to infect other cells.
  • Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.
  • Antibiotics will not cure upper respiratory viral illnesses, such as:
    • Colds or flu
    • Most coughs and bronchitis
    • Sore throats not caused by strep
    • Runny noses
  • Tens of millions of antibiotics prescribed in doctor's offices each year are for viral infections, which cannot effectively be treated with antibiotics. Doctors cite diagnostic uncertainty, time pressure on physicians, and patient demand as the primary reasons why antibiotics are over-prescribed.
  • Taking antibiotics for viral infections - such as a cold, cough, the flu and most bronchitis - will not:
    • Cure the infections
    • Keep other individuals from catching the illness
    • Help a person fell better
  • Taking antibiotics for viral infections will increase the risk of antibiotic resistance.
  • The spread of viral infections can be reduced through frequent hand washing and by avoiding close contact with others.

What To Do For Colds and Flu

  • Children and adults with viral infections recover when the illness has run its course. Colds caused by viruses last for two weeks or longer.
  • Measures that can help a person with a cold or flu feel better:
    • Increase fluid intake
    • Use a cool mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion
    • Soothe throat with ice chips, sore throat spray, or lozenges (do not give lozenges to young children)
  • Viral infections sometimes lead to bacterial infections. Patients should keep their doctor informed if their illness gets worse or lasts a long time.