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Your Health

Have a cold? Don’t take antibiotics

Nov 15 2016

When you’re coughing, have a runny nose, feel fatigued or experience other common symptoms of a cold, it may be your first thought to ask your primary care physician to prescribe antibiotics. But this may not be necessary and may have adverse effects through the creation of antibiotic-resistant organisms, or superbugs.

At least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States each year

“When patients come in with these symptoms, many times you’re trying to assess if they have a bacterial or viral infection,” said John Moore, DO, FAAFP, Aetna’s medical director for the U.S. Northeast Region. “The main concern with the overuse of antibiotics for viral colds is that we inadvertently increase the chance of creating more resistant germs, or what we call superbugs.”


For over seven decades, antibiotics have been used to treat infectious diseases. While these drugs have reduced the severity of illnesses and number of deaths from diseases, the organisms that antibiotics target are evolving and developing a resistance to these medications.

At least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC considers antibiotics to be one of the most commonly prescribed types of drugs. When used correctly, they can save lives, but the CDC also found antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed up to 50 percent of the time — a contributing factor to the development of resistance.

“Superbugs are very problematic since they may become so drug resistant to the majority of antibiotics available that in a minority of cases they’re difficult to treat with aggressive antibiotic therapy in a hospital,” Moore said.

The National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistance Bacteria has a goal of reducing inappropriate antibiotic use by 50 percent in 2020

A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found over 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in 2010 to 2011 were not necessary.

The inappropriate use of antibiotics led to the White House creating the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which set a goal of reducing inappropriate outpatient antibiotic use by 50 percent in 2020.

Viral vs. bacterial

When taken correctly antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, such as salmonella and strep throat. The common cold and influenza, or the flu, are caused by viral infections. Antibiotics are not effective against cold viruses or influenza. There are very effective antiviral drugs that are used to treat influenza when it’s diagnosed early in the course of the illness. A flu shot is your best protection against coming down with the flu, Moore said.

Over 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in 2010 to 2011 were not necessary

Some conditions may look like a viral infection, but are actually caused by bacteria. For example, a person with a sore through and runny nose may think they have the cold, but a quick test in the health provider’s office that involves gently swabbing the throat can determine if it’s strep throat or not.

“There’s a nationwide problem of gradually worsening antibiotic resistance because we’re overusing antibiotics for conditions that don’t respond to antibiotics,” Moore said. “As patients are exposed to a lot of antibiotics, common bacteria within our bodies or on our skin that are causing no harm can rapidly become a serious infection or mutate into drug-resistant germs that now cause problematic, hard to treat infections.”

What do you do if you have a cold?

If you’re suffering from a cold or another viral infection, Moore advises “supportive care,” which includes getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding workplace settings and taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen for aches and pains (as with other drugs and medication, be cognizant of the dosage and any interactions). Signs of being contagious include aches, chills, low-grade fever, excessive cough, sneezing or a runny nose, Moore added.

“If I see a patient that wants antibiotics and I’m sure they have a cold virus, then I do my best to tell them they don’t need antibiotics,” Moore said. “If they don’t start to feel better in a matter of several days, then I tell them to feel free to give me a call so we can discuss their ongoing symptoms.”