Antibiotics won’t cure your colds and flu

Antibiotics and coldsBy Dallas Post Tribune

DALLAS — Your throat is scratchy, you’re achy and feverish, your cough is keeping you up at night, but you can’t afford to miss work. You tried over-the-counter remedies but you still feel lousy. Time for an antibiotic – right?

Not so fast, say doctors at Parkland Health & Hospital System.

“Colds, flu and most respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses that no antibiotic can treat. Antibiotics only combat infections caused by bacteria,” said Bonnie Prokesch, MD, Medical Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Parkland and Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“Used appropriately, antibiotics save lives. But over-prescribing of antibiotics is a serious problem that has led to resistant strains of bacteria. Taking antibiotics to treat a viral infection will not clear up the condition and does more harm than good, lowering the effectiveness of antibiotics overall,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in outpatient clinics are unnecessary. One reason, research shows, is that some patients pressure their physicians to prescribe antibiotics for conditions like colds and flu, which aren’t affected by these drugs.

Illnesses caused by viruses include:

Colds and flu

Most sinus infections

Most sore throats, especially with a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice or mouth sores

Most chest colds (bronchitis)

“An antibiotic may be needed for certain respiratory infections,” Dr. Prokesch said. “If a sinus infection doesn’t get better in a week, or gets better for a while and then suddenly gets worse, you probably have developed a bacterial infection and antibiotics may be needed.”

Respiratory illnesses that are caused by bacteria and should be treated with antibiotics include:

Bacterial pneumonia

Whooping cough

Strep throat

These can be diagnosed by physical exams and lab tests at your doctor’s office.

Although they save lives and cure many types of bacterial infections, widespread use of antibiotics comes with potentially serious risks.

“The over-use of antibiotics breeds ‘superbugs’ – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Drug-resistant infections are becoming more common, making it more difficult to treat patients for many types of illnesses. In addition, side effects of taking antibiotics can include vomiting, severe diarrhea, vaginal infections, nerve damage, torn tendons and allergic reactions,” Dr. Prokesch explained.

The best protection against the flu is the flu vaccine, said Carolee Estelle, MD, Associate Chief of Infection Prevention at Parkland and Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. The CDC recommends for all persons aged 6 months and older. She added that anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu generally are not given to prevent the flu.

“They’re used for treating flu. What they do is shorten the duration of illness by at least 48 hours and they also reduce the severity of the infection,” Dr. Estelle said. “We use the anti-viral drugs to prevent influenza only in those individuals who cannot get the vaccine or are very immune compromised, and in those who have not been vaccinated and were exposed to someone with influenza.”

How can you avoid getting seasonal viruses like cold and flu? Dr. Prokesch and Dr. Estelle say that the tried-and-true methods your mother taught you are still the best.

First, get the flu vaccination annually

Clean your hands often using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when coughing or sneezing to help keep from spreading germs

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth

Keep your distance from others who are sick

Stay home when you are sick to avoid passing the virus to others

Practice good health habits

Drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food

Get plenty of sleep and exercise

Manage your stress

And to relieve symptoms if you do come down with a cold or flu, she advised:

Get plenty of rest and drink lots of clear fluids

Use a humidifier and clean it daily

Ease aches and pain and reduce fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen

Use saline (salt water) drops or spray for nasal discomfort

To soothe a sore throat, gargle with salt water, drink warm beverages, or eat or drink something cool

To ease a cough, breathe steam from a kettle or shower. For mild, short-term relief, try an over-the-counter cough medicine that has dextromethorphan.

For more information about services available at Parkland, visit

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Post Tribune.

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