Sick with a Cold? Don’t Reach for an Antibiotic First

Susan Szulc, MD

With cold and flu season upon us, I have several visits a day where I address patients’ requests for antibiotics. Antibiotics are sometimes viewed as a “quick fix” for a whole variety of conditions, from the flu to sinusitis to an ear infection. What I end up telling patients most of the time is that antibiotics are not needed.

Most infections are caused by viruses, which can not be helped with antibiotics. So, if you find yourself with a “cold” or “flu”, here are some things to try before seeing your doctor.

  • Get plenty of rest. Your body needs to recharge when fighting an infection.
  • Drink fluids. Keeping hydrated thins secretions and loosens phlegm.
  • Turn to salt water. Gargle with salt water to help ease a sore throat. Rinse your nose with a saltwater irrigation kit to help with thick secretions and congestion.
  • Try over-the-counter remedies. Over the counter drugs can help you cope with the nasty symptoms of an infection. However, if you have high blood pressure or a cardiac condition watch for ingredients that may raise your blood pressure (ie pseudophedrine) before adding these to your regimen.
  • Give yourself time. Most infections run their course in 5-7 days. If you’re not feeling well, try to take some time off work to let your body rest and fight infection.

Why should I wait on antibiotics?

Antibiotics carry their own risks and can sometimes create side effects that are less-than-helpful. Common side effects include GI distress (nausea, diarrhea) and rashes. In rare cases, antibiotics can cause a severe allergic reaction requiring hospitalization. Furthermore, antibiotics can alter the normal flora in your GI tract and urinary tract, creating an environment susceptible to other infections, such as yeast infections and C. difficile diarrhea.

Medical research has also shown us that overuse of antibiotics cultivates bacterial infections that are antibiotic-resistant, which means they do not respond to the antibiotics we have available.

When are antibiotics needed?

I usually reserve antibiotics for patients who have severe symptoms, such as fevers >101.5°F, symptoms lasting longer than 7-10 days, or symptoms that worsen after initially improving. You should schedule an appointment to see your primary care provider if you aren’t feeling better after a week or if your symptoms are worsening.

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About Dr. Susan Szulc
Susan V. Szulc, MD, is a board-certified internist with Bon Secours Medical Associates at Virginia Beach. She received her bachelor of science in microbiology from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. Dr. Szulc earned her medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, Va., where she also completed a residency in internal medicine. Dr. Szulc is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She is a member of the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians and American Medical Women’s Association. Dr. Szulc’s special interests include palliative care and hypertension.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Szulc please call (757) 305-1797!

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  1. Pingback: Bon Secours 757 Good Health Blog | That Pesky Cough: Common Misconceptions About Getting Rid of a Cough for Good

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