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Antibiotics and colds

How many times have you asked your GP for antibiotics to treat a cold? A lot of people do it, even before their GP has examined them or made a diagnosis.

Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance. This is when bacteria resist the effects of an antibiotic and it means that the infections they cause are more difficult to treat.

Antibiotics cannot treat the common cold virus

Antibiotics don't work on the common cold. They fight bacteria-related illnesses. Colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won't do you any good. They can, however, do you harm. For example, some people (about one in every 40,000) can have a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Also, the widespread use of antibiotics has led to the growth of several strains of common bacteria that are now antibiotic-resistant. For these, and other reasons, it is important to use antibiotics only in situations where they are necessary.

Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections

Antibiotics can be needed to treat infections and illnesses caused by bacteria, for example, bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, bacterial ear infection, or bacterial conjunctivitis. When they are used appropriately, antibiotics can save people's lives.

Only a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. So talk to your GP if you think you may need them, rather than taking a family member's leftover antibiotics from last winter's illness. But remember, you don't need them for a cold virus, and overusing antibiotics to fight colds has contributed to a global antibiotic resistance crisis.

Antibiotic resistance: A growing concern

Antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing public health problems. As the Department of Health points out, the more we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacterial resistance will develop. Some bacteria that cause potentially fatal infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics.

When bacteria are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics - and when people do not complete their prescribed course of antibiotics as advised - resistant bacteria are favoured. They survive and multiply.

When that happens, your illness will linger with no signs of getting better. Or it could suddenly take a turn for the worse. You may have to seek emergency medical care, even be admitted to hospital, where different antibiotics may need to be administered into your veins. People around you may also get the resistant bacteria and come down with a similar illness that is difficult to treat.

Taking antibiotics responsibly

Here are three things to remember when you are thinking about taking antibiotics.

  • When you see your GP, do not demand antibiotics. Your GP will try to determine whether you have a bacterial infection or a virus, and will prescribe antibiotics only if necessary. Remember, a common cold is caused by a virus and antibiotics will not help you.
  • Use antibiotics as prescribed. That means you should take all the medicine prescribed for your illness on time and as directed. If there are any pills left when your treatment ends, don't save them "just in case" you get sick later on. Safely dispose of any remaining pills by taking them to your local pharmacist to ensure others cannot get hold of them.
  • Do not give your antibiotics to anyone else, and do not take someone else's antibiotics. Not all antibiotics are the same. When you need one, it's important that you take the right antibiotic for your condition.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 05, 2018

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