Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Download (pdf)

Colds, Flu, and Other Respiratory Illnesses: Don’t Rush to Antibiotics

If you have a sore throat, cough, or sinus pain, you might expect to take antibiotics. After all, you feel bad, and you want to get better fast. But antibiotics don’t help most respiratory infections, and they can even be harmful.

Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.
Antibiotics fight infections caused by bacteria. But most respiratory infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics can’t cure a virus.

Viruses cause:

Antibiotics have risks.
Antibiotics can upset the body’s natural balance of good and bad bacteria.

Antibiotics can cause:

Many adults go to emergency rooms because of antibiotic side effects.Overuse of antibiotics is a serious problem.

Wide use of antibiotics breeds “superbugs.” These are bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. They can cause drug-resistant infections, even disability or death. The resistant bacteria—the superbugs—can also spread to family members and others.

You may need an antibiotic if you have a respiratory infection. Some examples are: 

You have a sinus infection that doesn’t get better in 7 days. Or it gets better and then suddenly gets worse.

You have a fever of 39 °C, or fever over 38 °C for 3 days or more, green or yellow mucus, or face pain for three or more days in a row.

Bacterial pneumonia.

Whooping cough (pertussis).

Strep throat.

If your health care provider does prescribe antibiotics, follow the directions carefully and take all your pills. This helps prevent the growth of superbugs.


How to manage respiratory infections

Try to avoid them.
Wash your hands often and well with plain soap and water. And get these vaccines:

Relieve symptoms.