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  • Anthony Piggott

Antibiotic Use in Colds and Flu

Simply put - antibiotics won't help you get over a cold or flu faster, as viruses cause colds, and flu and antibiotics are medicines used to treat bacterial infections and diseases.

Viruses are a type of tiny organism that can cause illness. When you have a cold, you may sneeze and have a blocked or a runny nose, sore throat and a cough. Colds rarely cause serious harm, but they can still make you feel unwell. Colds usually get better in 7–10 days, but a cough can last up to three weeks. Influenza, commonly known as ‘the flu’, is different to a cold although viruses cause both. Flu symptoms usually start suddenly with a high fever, and you may feel unwell and need to rest. You may have a dry cough, shivering, sweating and severe muscle aches.

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat diseases and infections caused by bacteria. Bacterial infections can affect the throat, lungs, skin, bowel, and many other parts of the body. While some infections are severe, many are mild, and fortunately, these diseases can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics interfere with the vital processes in bacteria, killing the bacteria or stopping them from multiplying. However, they do not work against viruses, so unfortunately not all illnesses and disease can be treated with antibiotics.

As much as we would wish it otherwise, antibiotics will not help people get over a cold or flu faster, they won’t stop the infection from getting worse, and won’t prevent the infection being passed onto other people. There are also possible side effects of antibiotic use such as diarrhoea, stomach upsets, thrush and allergic reactions.

It’s often said that ”prevention is better than cure” and luckily protection against influenza in the form of a yearly flu vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Ideally, you should aim to have the flu vaccine in autumn each year – so talk to your doctor or pharmacist for further information.

Colds and flu usually get better on their own, but there are things that you can do to help ease the pain:

  • Get plenty of sleep and rest and stay comfortably warm;

  • Drink plenty of fluids;

  • Carefully breathe in steam (e.g. from inhalations, vaporisers, showers, baths) to loosen mucus;

  • Blow your nose gently with a tissue and dispose of;

  • Try drinking honey and lemon in warm water;

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water;

  • Wash children's dummies and toys regularly;

  • Avoid sharing eating or drinking utensils;

  • Eat regular, healthy meals, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Limit foods high in salt, sugar and fat; and

  • Keep hands away from nose, mouth and eyes.

Of course, there is also the risk that using antibiotics when you don’t need to may make antibiotic less effective when they are needed – also known as antibiotic resistance. When bacteria become antibiotic resistant, the antibiotic will no longer work against that infection. This can make infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria difficult to treat, last for a long time and spread to other people. According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is the third biggest threat to human health. Therefore, it is very important only to use antibiotics when appropriate.

WHEN ARE ANTIBIOTICS NEEDED? Certain people may be more likely to develop complications from respiratory tract infections. Complications are often bacterial infections that need antibiotics. People with chronic conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes, immune problems) are more likely to need an antibiotic to treat respiratory tract infections. Pneumonia is also a serious lung infection that can be caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will be prescribed if pneumonia is caused by bacteria.

Best advice if you have a cold or the flu is to speak with your local pharmacist. Pharmacists are medicine experts, and your pharmacist can give you detailed information about colds and flu and suggest treatment options. Self-care Fact Cards such as Colds and Flu, Coughs and Antibiotics are available from pharmacies providing the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia’s Self Care health information. Piggott’s Pharmacies are located at Blackbutt, Hamilton, Hamilton South, Lambton and Branxton – pay us a visit – our friendly team are always happy to help.

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