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The reason antibiotics are not effective for flu treatment

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

If you've been laid low by flu, you'll want something to make you feel better and quick. If you ask your doctor for antibiotics you're likely to get short shrift. The flu is a viral infection, not a bacterial infection, so antibiotics won't help. Long term they could do more harm than good.

Although it's miserable, most people can manage their flu symptoms at home, without going to a GP, by keeping warm, drinking plenty of water and taking painkillers to lower their temperature and ease their aches if necessary.

If you are in a vulnerable group and are at a higher risk of becoming more seriously ill, it may be best to see your GP who may recommend antiviral medications. This includes people over 65, pregnant women, people with certain diseases or conditions, like diabetes, or those who have a weakened immune system.

Flu complications

The situation is not always clear cut. People can get bacterial complications from the flu which can be serious and sometimes life-threatening unless they are treated with antibiotics.

When people die from flu it's usually because of secondary bacterial infections.

So how do you know if you have a bad case of flu or something more serious that needs antibiotics?

The experts' view

BootsWebMD asked two of the UK's leading experts on flu, Professor John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at Queen Mary College, London and Professor Wendy Barclay, chair in influenza virology at Imperial College London.

"Complications needing antibiotics are most often triggered by bacteria called Staphylococcus and Streptococcus," explains Professor Oxford. "During flu they work their way down the respiratory tree and cause severe sore throat, bronchitis or pneumonia depending how deep they reach."

Flu weakens your body's immune system, which makes it easier for bacteria to invade the body. Pneumonia is the most common, and potentially the most serious complication, as it's the most likely cause of death in older people with flu.

Superinfection danger

"Influenza virus infection can on its own cause bronchitis and pneumonia if for example the patient does not control the viral load and the virus penetrates to the lower respiratory tract," explains Professor Barclay, "But influenza infection also can affect the host's immune system such that a bacterial superinfection, about 1 week after the virus infection, can occur and it is then that a patient might need antibiotics."

At-risk groups

If you are a healthy young adult chances are you'll be able to shake off the flu without any serious health concerns. Flu and its complications are more high risk for people who:

  • Are over 65
  • Babies and young children
  • Pregnant women
  • Have a chronic lung condition like asthma or bronchitis
  • Have heart or kidney disease
  • Have diabetes
  • Have severe anaemia
  • Have a weakened immune system either from a disease or its treatment
  • Live in a nursing or long-term residential home.

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