Rethink your cold and flu solution this winter.

NPS MedicineWise
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This time of year is a breeding ground for colds and flu. Almost everyone in our office has been affected in the last couple of months with coughs, sneezes, and nasally voices becoming far too common sounds in the backdrop of our day.

But despite the frequency of these sicknesses, we tend to forget how debilitating they can be until we’re personally afflicted.

When you’re stuck in bed with a headache, a runny nose, sore muscles, a sore throat and a relentless cough, there’s only so many hours of Dr. Phil you can watch before you decide something needs to be done. All you want is some respite, because particularly in this day and age, we don’t think we have time to rest and recover.

But there’s a major misconception about these common ailments that is not helping us get better.

The belief that taking antibiotics will help us recover faster from a cold or flu.

A 2014 survey found two-thirds of Australian workers believe antibiotics will speed up recovery from the flu or the common cold.

One-fifth of people expect to receive antibiotics for viral infections, such as a cold or flu, and the majority of GPs say they would prescribe antibiotics to meet the expectations of their patient.

Despite a significant body of research demonstrating that antibiotics will not kill the viruses that cause the flu and common colds, we still don’t seem to absorb this information.


Try as you might, it won't work. Image:

There are a few reasons why this belief is so deeply entrenched. First, people fundamentally underestimate how long cold and flu viruses will take to recover from. They also underestimate how unwell they'll feel while suffering from these ailments. So we convince ourselves easily that something is very, very wrong.

Second, people believe that certain symptoms require antibiotics. For example, having green or yellow snot is often seen as a sign of a bacterial infection, even though these symptoms are just as common with a virus and simply indicates your body is fighting off a cold.


Third, people believe that antibiotics will speed up recovery.

Even though people believe 'It helped me get better last time' or 'It’s worked before when I felt like this,' there is a lot of information that tells us antibiotics don’t work on viruses, such as cold and flu.

Of course it’s reasonable to go to your doctor if you’re concerned about your symptoms and they don’t seem to be getting any better. Sometimes you can be infected with bacteria after a cold or flu, and your GP can advise you whether you will need an antibiotic or whether your symptoms will go away by themselves. But if you have the typical signs of a cold or flu, you shouldn’t be asking for antibiotics.

There are a number of things you can do to manage a cold or flu. They might not be as exciting as taking a magic medicine, but they will help you feel better. For example, you can use simple pain relievers like paracetamol for headaches, muscle pain or fever. You can use decongestants to help relieve nasal congestion and dry up a runny nose. You can stay rested when you first sense you’re getting sick, in order to aid your immune system in fighting the virus. Gargling with warm salty water, sucking a throat lozenge or drinking a honey and lemon drink can help a sore throat.


Antibiotics will not speed up recovery. Image: iStock

Choose these options rather than antibiotics, because they won’t help you recover faster and could even cause you harm. Here’s why you should avoid them if you don’t need them.

When you take antibiotics when you don’t need to, they gradually become less effective.

This means that down the track, if you contract a bacterial infection (anything from gonorrhoea to meningitis to toxic shock syndrome), antibiotics may not work. This is because when bacteria come into contact with antibiotics regularly they change in order to survive.


When bacteria evolve in order to survive, they become resistant to antibiotics, making recovery difficult.

This means that as new strains become more resistant to different types of antibiotics, your doctor might need to try several types of antibiotics before finding one that works. That gives you more time to get a lot sicker.

Ultimately, antibiotics save lives. Bacterial infections that used to kill us centuries ago no longer do because of the medicines we have available to us. But by taking antibiotics when they’re not needed – we compromise this development.


The only real solution is rest, fluids and prevention. Image:

Here are a few things to keep in mind this winter:

1. Listen to your doctor.

If your doctor says you have a viral infection – you don’t need antibiotics. Don’t pressure them to prescribe you antibiotics. They might do so to satisfy you, but it won’t be the best course of action for your health.

2. Follow instructions carefully.

If you’re prescribed a medication – take it for as long as your doctor tells you to. If you have leftovers in the packet, take these back to a pharmacy. If your doctor gives you a ‘just in case’ prescription follow the advice of your doctor and only fill this if you really don’t start to feel better.

3. Don’t share medicine.

Never give antibiotics to anyone they haven’t been prescribed to, and don’t take them if they haven’t been prescribed for you. Not all antibiotics are the same.

Winter is the peak time for unnecessary doses of antibiotics. Taking them when they’re not needed is the one mistake we’re all making – and ultimately, it won’t get us back on our feet quicker.

How do you recover from cold and flu?