Health Encyclopedia

Antibiotics Not the Cure for the Common Cold

You can catch a cold at any time during the year. And often, you and your family may find yourselves seeking your health care provider's help in battling the misery that the illness can cause. You may even be hoping for a miracle drug that will provide an instant cure.

It's easy to mistake antibiotics as a magic remedy for a cold. For a long time, antibiotics have dutifully treated the conditions they were intended to be used for, like bacterial pneumonia, sinusitis, and tonsillitis. Recently, it has been shown that many kinds of gastric and duodenal ulcers are caused by bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) and can be cured with antibiotics. So, it may seem that they should work for colds and the flu, as well.

But unlike bacterial infections, colds are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics.

Cold sufferers may think the symptoms they're feeling might be due to a bacterial infection that antibiotics can treat -- especially if these medicines helped them recover from a previous bacterial illness.

Sometimes a cold can lead to a serious bacterial infection, but this is not common. In those few cases, antibiotics are the best thing to take. Most of the time, however, a cold passes in a week, with or without the use of antibiotics. Taking these drugs does not help you get better faster. In fact, it can create problems.

Drug allergy

You may develop an allergy to the antibiotic. About 1 in 10 people who are allergic to penicillin will also be allergic to a group of antibiotics called cephalosporins. Penicillin allergies are common. If you develop a drug allergy, it can severely limit your treatment options if you later get a serious infection; usually, you cannot take any drug that's related to the one to which you are allergic.

'Friendly' bacteria

Taking antibiotics also can kill off your body's normal flora, the "friendly" bacteria that keep other organisms under control.

With these helpful bacteria gone, harmful organisms may be able to grow unchecked, causing problems like diarrhea, thrush, or yeast infections.

Super-bugs

The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade. Nearly all significant bacterial infections in the world are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Each time we use antibiotics, we give germs the chance to mutate into a form resistant to the antibiotic. As germs become resistant, doctors are forced to use different, more potent, and possibly more dangerous antibiotics. As some of the germs get exposed to and survive more powerful antibiotic therapy, they become more difficult to treat. So today, we have types of germs that cause tuberculosis, wound infections, and pneumonia that are no longer sensitive to the medicines doctors usually use to fight them. Germs also can become resistant to antibiotics if a person doesn't take a prescription as directed for the entire length of treatment.

Do not take an antibiotic for any viral infection including a cold, a cough, or the flu.

When you are prescribed an antibiotic, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Take it exactly as the doctor tells you. Complete the prescribed course even if you are feeling better.

  • Do not skip doses.

  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.

  • Do not save any antibiotics for the next time you get sick, and throw away any leftover medication once you have completed your prescription.



Medical Reviewers:

  • Foster, Sarah, RN, MPH
  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician