It's Cough & Cold Season. Do You Need Antibiotics?

Your throat is sore; your nose is runny. You’re catching a cold. After a few days, you begin to cough or feel sinus pressure. What can you do to get better?

Respiratory Infections

Colds are the most common reason adults miss work and children miss school. Adults average two to three colds per year, and children usually have more. Colds are caused by a virus. Other respiratory infections like pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis and bronchitis are typically caused by viruses.

Colds usually last seven to 10 days. Viral bronchitis may last up to three weeks. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics, and antibiotics will not help you get better faster. If you have ever taken an antibiotic for a virus and felt better, it was likely due to your immune system fighting the infection.

What is the problem with taking an antibiotic for a virus?


We have known for years that inappropriate use of antibiotics in health care and farms can lead to antibiotic resistance. If you have a bacterial infection soon after using an antibiotic, you’ll probably have to take a much more potent drug.

Good antibiotic stewardship is important for the whole community. At least 23,000 Americans die every year from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some “superbugs” are resistant to almost all antibiotics.

Side Effects

Some bacteria in your body are beneficial. You may have heard of probiotics. These are good organisms, usually bacteria, found in your digestive tract. All antibiotics can kill off some good bacteria along with the bad. This disrupts your body’s natural balance of flora (bacteria and other organisms) and may cause diarrhea or yeast infections.

Certain groups of antibiotics have possible serious side effects, including kidney damage, tendon damage and electrolyte disturbances that can affect the heart rate.

What Should You Expect If You Call or See Your Health Care Provider?

If you’re having respiratory symptoms for less than three weeks without a fever, you often don’t need antibiotics. Your provider may treat your symptoms with over-the-counter or prescription cough suppressants, or a bronchodilator (e.g. albuterol inhaler) to help open your airways.

If your provider finds a bacterial infection like strep throat, you need an antibiotic. People who smoke or people with lung diseases like asthma may also need antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics are often given in short courses nowadays. Longer courses used to be common, but that may increase side effects, resistance and new infections.

What If You Do Need an Antibiotic?

Ask your provider or pharmacist about using a probiotic, which can help to counteract diarrhea and yeast infections.

Make sure to take exactly as directed. Your pharmacist will tell you if a medication must be taken with or without food, or if other products like antacids or mineral supplements can interfere with it working well.

Unless your provider directs you to stop, take the entire course of antibiotic, even after you begin to feel better. If for any reason you do not finish an antibiotic, dispose of it properly. A recent study found that 14 percent of patients had saved antibiotics from previous prescriptions at home, and 5 percent of patients had used antibiotics without a prescription in the previous year –  actions that can cause further antibiotic resistance.

Meet the Author

Sarah Bartel, RPh, is pharmacist at Aurora Pharmacy in Algoma, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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