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Why no amount of antibiotics will help get rid of your cold

woman sick in bed
Sybil Millar
Written by Sybil Millar

Cold and flu season is here. At the first sign of a cough, sore throat or runny nose, you might be tempted to ask your doctor for an antibiotic to treat your illness.

Not so fast.

“If your cold has been caused by a virus, antibiotics aren’t going to do anything for you. Antibiotics only treat infections caused by bacteria, not viruses like colds and the flu,” says Dr. Jerome Leis, medical director, infection prevention and control at Sunnybrook.

“The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is with plenty of fluids and rest.”

So, while you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics for a bacterial infection like pneumonia, you won’t get antibiotics if you’re suffering from the common cold, which is a viral illness.

It’s not just because the antibiotics won’t work for you. There’s another, larger-scale reason: antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria change and become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infections they cause. It’s making it more difficult to treat infectious diseases, and is undermining many advances in medicine.

Without effective antibiotics, infections can result in longer illnesses and more deaths. In fact, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today.

“Current worldwide estimates of deaths attributed to untreatable infections directly from antibiotic resistance are at about 700,000 a year,” says Dr. Leis.

At our current rate of antibiotic overuse, and without the development of new drugs, by 2050 that number is expected to rise to 10 million deaths worldwide. This is more than what we see from cancer today.”

As a patient, there are four things you can do to help make sure antibiotics remain effective for those who need them:

1. Only use antibiotics as prescribed

You should only use antibiotics when prescribed to you by a certified health professional

2. Never use leftover antibiotics

Different antibiotics are used to treat different types of infections. Even if you believe your infection has recurred, seek medical attention to determine the cause and whether antibiotics are still right for you

3. Don’t share antibiotics with others

They can put your friends and family at risk. Antibiotics can cause side-effects like allergic reactions, development of C.difficile diarrhea and serious drug interactions. Plus, sharing antibiotics promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms

4. Prevent infections

Regularly wash your hands, avoid close contact with sick people and keep your vaccinations up to date

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, Critical Care and Infectious Diseases programs at Sunnybrook.

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