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Antibiotic Resistance and the Common Cold

When (and When Not) to Take Antibiotics


Updated June 11, 2014

Antibiotic Resistance and the Common Cold

Overuse of antibiotics has led to serious antibiotic resistance.

Image courtesy: CDC

Antibiotics are a very common type of medication -- they also happen to be quite misunderstood. While they are effective at treating many bacterial infections, antibiotics will not treat viral illness (such as the cold and flu) and have been overused for years. Because of this overuse, we are now dealing with the problem of antibiotic resistance. This means that the antibiotics we have used for so long are no longer effective at treating the bacteria they were designed to kill.

So why do we continue to use antibiotics for viral illnesses? There are a couple of reasons, none of which are particularly good.


  • Patients get frustrated with their symptoms and pressure doctors into prescribing antibiotics.

    According to a recent poll on your About.com Cold and Flu site, some of the reasons that people believed antibiotics were necessary included:

    Unfortunately, none of these reasons in and of themselves mean that you need antibiotics.


  • Doctors believe their patients expect antibiotics, even though they may not demand or ask for them.


It is clear that a lot of education is needed for both the public and healthcare providers. Although most doctors and other healthcare providers know that antibiotics will not treat viral illnesses, they need to be better equipped to educate their patients about antibiotic resistance.

Some common illnesses that typically do require antibiotic treatment include:


Viral illnesses that cannot be treated with antibiotics include:


Changing the way people look at medications and illnesses is not an easy task. In the past, it was thought that even though an antibiotic may not help a patient get better any faster, it wouldn't do any harm. But now we know that the opposite is true. By prescribing these antibiotics so frequently and needlessly, bacteria have become stronger and more resistant to the medications we have. This makes it necessary to develop new drugs that are stronger, which usually pose more severe side effects -- and no patient wants that.

So the next time you get sick and feel like you may need antibiotics, take a good look at your situation and discuss it with your healthcare provider. If he or she tells you that you have a virus, don't push for antibiotics. The typical viral illness lasts between 7 and 10 days, which also happens to be the amount of time it takes for a typical round of antibiotics to be fully effective. Either way, you should get better in about a week. And holding off on the antibiotics will help you avoid unpleasant side effects and potentially stronger illnesses in the future.



"Antibiotics: Too Much of a Good Thing." Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research 13 Feb 06. 23 Nov 07.

"Colds and flu - antibiotics." Medical Encyclopedia. 05 Nov 07. Department of Health & Human Services. 23 Nov 07.

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