Nonstop coughing. A pounding headache. Sinus pressure.
A bad cold can make you feel just as miserable as if you had the flu. After a week of feeling awful, many people wonder if they need an antibiotic to get better.
Before you start hunting through your medicine cabinet, consider this: antibiotics don’t work on viruses. In fact, they could make you feel much worse and put you at risk for life-threatening infections.
Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed increases your risk for antibiotic resistance – a critical public health concern nationwide. As a result, antibiotics are becoming less effective against infectious organisms, which have adapted over the years. More than 2 million people get sick every year from illnesses related to antibiotic resistance, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, roughly 23,000 people die.
“It’s extremely important to only take an antibiotic if your doctor prescribes one for you,” said Carol Carson, PharmD, BCPS, a clinical pharmacy specialist for Bon Secours Hampton Roads. “In many cases, you won’t need an antibiotic.”
For certain, antibiotics are critical tools for treating infections such as pneumonia and life-threatening conditions including sepsis. They can also help people who have urinary tract infections, whooping cough or strep throat.
Unfortunately, they won’t help you for bronchitis or a chest cold, a runny nose, sore throat or fluid in the middle ear. Despite this, many people still demand them at the doctor’s office, hoping they or their sick kids will feel better, faster.
How antibiotic resistance occurs.
Anytime you take an antibiotic, drug resistance occurs. As the antibiotics kill bacteria, they also wipe out good bacteria that protects you from infection. As a result, the drug-resistant bacteria can grow and take over.
Taking the incorrect dose and not taking your full course of antibiotics makes it easier for drug-resistant bugs to grow.
Antibiotics can cause major side effects.
While antibiotics have saved lives over the years, there are risks to taking any drug. Major side effects from taking antibiotics include allergic reactions. Antibiotics are responsible for almost one out of five emergency department visits for adverse drug events.
If you take antibiotics, you also face a higher risk for months of getting sick from Clostridium difficile. A potentially fatal infection, C. diff causes severe diarrhea and colon damage.
Prevent antibiotic resistance.
One way to help prevent antibiotic resistance is to only take these drugs when they’re truly needed. Taking antibiotics when it’s unnecessary increases your risk of getting an infection later that resists treatment.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, make sure to take them exactly as directly. Don’t miss or skip a dose. Finish all medication and never share it with another person.
Feel better, without antibiotics.
If you have an upper respiratory infection such as sore throat, ear infection, sinus infection, colds and bronchitis, try these tips from the CDC:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Stay hydrated.
- Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to alleviate coughing and sore throat.
- Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen to relieve pain (including ear pain) or fever.
- Drink warm beverages for a sore throat. Gargle with salt water. Use a sore throat spray; try popsicles or lozenges.
- Apply a warm moist cloth over your ear to ease earache pain.
- Use a decongestant or saline nasal spray for runny nose and sinus pressure.
Always seek advice from your health provider on what you should take or do to alleviate your cold symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants and saline nasal sprays may help you feel better, but they won’t shorten the length of time you’re sick.
“A cold will last 14 days if you don’t take anything,” Carson said. “It will last two weeks if you take something.”