Health Matters

Colds and Flu: Do You Need Antibiotics?

Dec. 3, 2015

As the mercury in the thermometer drops, we see a rise in colds and flu. Coughs, colds, and sore throats make their way through schools and workplaces with people asking, “How long will this last?” and, “Do I need antibiotics?” Dr. Mike Gavin, of UR Medicine Primary Care, helps answer these questions.

man sick in bed with thermometer in his mouth

By and large, most of what we see throughout the winter are viral infections. Hundreds of different viruses can cause colds. Unfortunately, antibiotics have no effect on viral infections. Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a bad skin infection (cellulitis), or a sinus infection.

Besides the fact that they won’t be effective against viruses and may be costly, there’s another good reason for limiting antibiotic use. Taking them when they aren’t needed creates antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria become invincible to antibiotics, making them much harder to treat in the future. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” If more superbugs are created, we will not have any effective antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. 

How can we stop the creation of superbugs and, at the same time, make sure a cold is really a viral infection? These facts may help you successfully navigate the winter cold and flu season:

  • Most colds are viral infections. Symptoms of viral infections are cough, runny nose, sore throat, and head and chest congestion. You may also experience low-grade fever (under 100.4°F). Antibiotics are ineffective against these infections. Your symptoms will generally start to improve after seven to 10 days. Over-the-counter medications may help ease your symptoms but will not make the cold go away any faster.
  • Coughs can last for a while. Coughs during or after colds can last for several weeks, especially for people with asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). Talk with your doctor about over-the-counter treatments for this. It’s important to know that over-the-counter medicines to treat coughs are generally not effective in children under the age of 7.
  • Know when to call your doctor.
    • If you’re having trouble breathing, fevers (100.4°F or higher), or sinus pain for more than a week.  
    • Whenever a baby younger than 3 months of age has a fever, he or she should be evaluated as soon as possible.
  • A sore throat isn’t always strep throat. But when you also have a fever (temperature of 100.4°F or higher), you should call your doctor.
  • Stay home with the flu. If your symptoms point to flu—like fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, diarrhea—stay home from work or school.
  • Take antibiotics correctly. If you do have a bacterial infection and your doctor orders an antibiotic, always finish the entire prescription. Even if you are feeling better, or you think the antibiotic isn’t working, always finish taking the medication as directed. In addition to curing your infection, taking it properly will help prevent antibiotic resistance, and hopefully the development of superbugs.
  • A little prevention goes a long way. If you’re around others who may be sick, make sure you are washing your hands frequently, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy. If you smoke, now is a great time to quit since smoking can increase your risk of getting viral and bacterial infections. If you do have a cold, washing your hands and covering your cough are some of the best ways to prevent passing it to others at home or in the workplace.

Michael Gavin, MD

Michael J. Gavin, M.D., cares for adults and children at UR Medicine Primary Care’s Tow Path Family Medicine and new patients are welcome. Call (585) 758-0800.