Why don't antibiotics work for colds?
This is the message of a recently launched NHS health campaign. And, it also applies to those suffering from the flu.
Why is this so? What is the problem with using antibiotics for your cold or flu? Surely, if you are feeling really unwell, they will help?
Well, the short answer is no.
The reasons are simple:
1. Colds and flu are viral infections and
2. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses.
What's the problem with taking an antibiotic just in case?
Antibiotics are a very powerful class of medicines. They have the ability to save lives and, if I were to succumb to a serious bacterial infection, I would have no hesitation in taking them.
However, they have to be used carefully. Over the years their strength has been misused and abused – antibiotics have become over-used by doctors and over-demanded by patients. This means that when they are needed, they are less likely to work.
Most people with symptoms of colds or flu treat themselves with painkillers or use natural medicines or remedies such as Echinacea. However, if symptoms are severe or prolonged, they seek help from their GP, expecting that antibiotics can help them recover faster.
Doctors may occasionally agree to treating a cold or flu using antibiotics if, apart from the virus infecting your body, they see that your cold or flu symptoms are the result of an additional bacterial infection. Signs of this happening may include a sore throat, or coughing up green, mucky sputum. Antibiotics may be the appropriate treatment in these situations, but not always so.
The problem is that without waiting for laboratory tests, a doctor is not able to tell for certain if you need antibiotics. In the past, they will have been prescribed ‘just in case’ there is a bacterial infection hanging around. Today we know that this policy is flawed, and that the unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics over the years has lead to an increased resistance of bacteria to treatment.
How big a problem is this?
This problem does not just face doctors in the UK – it is a worldwide issue. In 2018, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, based in Sweden, released figures on the 9th European Antibiotic Awareness day telling us that, in Europe, 39% of infections have bacteria resistant to last-line antibiotics. This is very worrying because these antibiotics are the last treatment option available. This means that if you have the misfortune to pick up one of these bugs, you are going to get pretty ill.
So, as the cold and flu season kicks in, remember that antibiotics are not the right treatment for colds or flu. Misuse of this type of medicine over the years has now led to increasing antibiotic resistance, making some bacterial infections difficult or impossible to treat. Help spread the message by telling this to all your family and friends.
Originally written 4 December 2014 (updated 1 November 2019)