Antibiotics and the Common Cold


Antibiotics and the Common Cold

The Common Cold

It is called the “common cold” for good reason. You and your children will probably have more colds than any other type of illness in your lifetimes. Colds are the most common reason that children miss school and parents miss work, with parents often catching their colds from their children. Children usually get them from other children since colds can spread quickly through schools or daycare centers, especially during the winter or rainy seasons.


A cold virus spreads through tiny air droplets that are released when a sick person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose. People are most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days of a cold, and usually not contagious after the first week.


The common cold usually causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms. Adults and older children with colds generally have a low fever or no fever at all, while young children often run a fever around 37.5 - 38.5°C.


The treatment for the common cold is simply getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms in adults and children over age 6. They do not make your cold go away faster, but can help you feel better. Alternative treatments that have been used for colds include chicken soup, Vitamin C, Zinc and the Echinacea herb.

Antibiotics Can't Treat the Common Cold

If you have a cold and feel lousy, of course you want an antibiotic to help you feel better. Many people turn to their doctors and say, "I need an antibiotic." But, antibiotics don't work for the common cold, which is caused by viruses. Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. Taking an antibiotic unnecessarily can be dangerous to your health and can increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. When bacteria become resistant to medicine, the medicine won't work as well, or at all. For these and other reasons, it is important to only use antibiotics in situations where they are needed.

Antibiotics Do Treat Bacterial Infections

Antibiotics are needed to treat infections and illnesses that are caused by bacteria. For example, they are used to treat such illnesses as bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, bacterial ear infection, and pink eye (Conjunctivitis). When they are used properly, antibiotics can save people's lives.

Sometimes a bacterial infection will follow a cold virus. Signs that you may have a bacterial infection after a cold are pain around the face and eyes that may worsen when bending over and coughing up thick yellow or green mucus. These symptoms may also occur with a cold. But if they last for more than a week or are severe, you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.

Only your doctor can prescribe antibiotics. So talk to your doctor if you think you might need them. 

Antibiotic Resistance

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S., antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing public health problems. When bacteria are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics, for example when you take an antibiotic for common colds or take them too frequently, the germs in your body change. This may allow them to completely repel the antibiotic. When that happens, your illness will linger with no signs of getting better. Or your illness could suddenly take a turn for the worse. You may have to seek emergency medical care and even be admitted to the hospital and have several different antibiotics administered through an IV. Those 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:

•   Listen to your health care provider. Your doctor will determine if you have a bacterial infection or a virus and will prescribe antibiotics, if necessary. 

•   Use antibiotics as prescribed. Take all the medicine prescribed for your illness on time as directed. If there are pills left when your treatment ends, don't save them "just in case" you might get sick later on. Safely discard any remaining pills.

•   Don't share medicine. Don't give antibiotics to anyone else, and don't take someone else's antibiotic. All antibiotics are not the same. When you need one, it's important that you take the right antibiotic for your condition.

Why do some doctors write the prescription? Most do it out of habit or to make their patients happy. A mother brings her sick child to the pediatrician and expects to walk out with an antibiotic prescription. It takes time for the doctor to explain why antibiotics won’t do any good and might in fact do her child harm. Knowing the facts about when to use and when not to use antibiotics will help you and your doctor make the right decision for you and/or your child.



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