Antibiotics for cold and flu: do they work?

Our resident pharmacist looks at antibiotic resistance and recommends the best treatments for coughs and colds.

The best treatment of colds and flu.
Katerina HorobtsovaGetty Images

Can't shake that sore throat? If your cold has been lingering for weeks and you still feel dreadful, you might consider asking your doctor for antibiotics. But do you really need them, and more importantly, will they actually work?

Our resident pharmacist Rita Ghelani looks at the best treatments for cold and flu and when you might need antibiotics:

Do antibiotics work for cold and flu?

Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria and have no effect on viruses, so it is unlikely that antibiotics will cure your cold or flu.

It is also worth mentioning antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. But bacteria can adapt and find ways to become antibiotic resistant, so that antibiotic medicines no longer work. The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. The frequency of antibiotic resistance infections is increasing and this can be life-threatening for the young and old, who are at most risk of resistant infections.

In a bid to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, Public Health England has relaunched its national campaign across England to support the government’s efforts to further reduce inappropriate prescriptions for antibiotics. Doctors are instead being urged to recommend honey and over-the-counter remedies as the 'first point of call' for coughs and colds.



Coughs and colds treatment tips

So if antibiotics are off the table, what's the best way to treat a cold? Sore throats are usually the first sign of a cold. On average they last no more than a week and there is generally no need to consult a doctor. The majority of sore throats (90 per cent) are caused by viral infection, with only one in 10 due to bacterial infection.

Opt for over-the-counter remedies, honey and lemon and plenty of bed rest to treat coughs and colds. To ease symptoms, you can also try the following:

• Try sucking on a lozenge

Use a lozenge or pastille, available from the pharmacist, to help lubricate and soothe a sore throat.

• Gargle salt water or aspirin

Gargling with soluble aspirin (300mg) is effective for inflamed sore throats.

'Gargling with salty water also provides some relief because it helps loosen mucus and draws excess fluid out of throat tissue which has become inflamed,' recommends ear, nose and throat surgeon Alasdair Mace.

• Try a warm drink of honey and lemon

In most cases, a sore throat will clear up of its own accord, although the pain can last for around a week. There are a few home remedies which might help. 'Warm drinks can provide short-lived relief from the pain and discomfort of a throat infection,' suggests community pharmacist Noel Wicks.

• Take painkillers

Soluble or liquid formulations of paracetamol or ibuprofen are a good option if you are finding it difficult to swallow.

'However, the quickest way to achieve effective and targeted pain relief is to use a fast-acting local anaesthetic relief, such as benzocaine which can provide rapid relief of sore throat symptoms,' suggests Mace.



When to see the doctor for a cold or flu

If you experience any of the following symptoms, then visit your doctor to discuss treatments:

✔️ If you have very severe symptoms.

✔️ If your symptoms have not improved after a week.

✔️ You frequently get a sore throat.

✔️ If you get a sore throat when your immune system is suppressed because of an illness such as HIV, chemotherapy or a certain medicine that you may be taken.



Last updated: 01/10/19

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