The Common Cold Remedy Myth Antibiotics

Antibiotics are one of the great discoveries of modern science. However, while antibiotics can help our bodies recover from bacterial infections, they are not effective in treating the common cold. Therefore, if your coughing, sneezing or runny nose is caused by a viral infection, antibiotics won’t be able to help.

How Antibiotics Work

Many people don’t understand the differences between viruses and bacteria:

  • Bacteria: Bacteria are small, single-celled life forms that can reproduce quickly.
  • Virus: A virus is a microscopic particle that can infect the cells of an organism. Viruses can replicate themselves only by infecting a host cell. Unlike bacteria, they cannot reproduce on their own.

Bacteria exist throughout the world, on every surface and inside our bodies. In most cases, the human immune system keeps these tiny organisms in check. When something causes bacteria in our bodies to grow out of control, illness can occur.

Antibiotics work to kill or disable bacteria when they grow out of control. This class of drugs, however, is indiscriminate in its approach, often destroying the good with the bad. That can lead to various side effects as well as worsening symptoms when applied inappropriately to a virus-based illness.

Negative Side Effects of Antibiotics

Antibiotics can cause side effects that, when taken during a cold, will only add to the misery. These side effects include:

  • diarrhea
  • kidney stone formation
  • nausea
  • sun sensitivity
  • yeast infections.

Allergic reactions to antibiotics can also occur and require immediate attention. Allergic reactions to antibiotics can cause:

  • breathing difficulties
  • rashes
  • tongue swelling.

Drug resistance is perhaps the worst side effect of taking unnecessary antibiotics. Bacteria that survive the initial round of drugs often develop into new drug-resistant strains. This sometimes occurs when a patient begins feeling better and, therefore, does not complete the full course of prescribed medication. This puts individuals at risk of having severe complications the next time a bacterial infection develops.

In spite of this, reports reflect that some doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics upon patient request.

Cold Treatments

During the cold and flu season, it’s especially tempting to self-treat with an antibiotic when sneezing and wheezing begins, regardless of the illness’ cause. Parents, in particular, are eager to seek relief for younger children as quickly as possible. They rush to the doctor, expecting the doctor to prescribe an antibiotic to relieve uncomfortable symptoms.

That’s not to infer that a doctor won’t prescribe an antibiotic for a person who is suffering from the cold. If a person with a viral infection develops a secondary bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection, an antibiotic may be required.

Most colds will run their course in a week or two. General recommendations suggest that if symptoms show no significant improvement after that time, then a more serious infection may be present. If your cold doesn’t improve with the following cold treatments, schedule an appointment with your doctor:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers to ease pain.
  • Use over-the-counter saline nasal sprays and over-the-counter decongestants to prevent congestion.


American Academy of Family Physicians (2006). Antibiotics: When They Can and Can’t Help. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from the Web site:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from the Department of Health and Human Services Web site:

Melton, Lisa (2005). Drugs in Peril. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from the Wellcome Trust Web site: