Winter infections and using antibiotics

Date published: 06 November 2017

With winter upon us, many people will pick up sniffles, sore throats, colds, and get infections. But it's useful to know the difference between a viral infection and a bacterial infection and how can both be treated.

Viral infections

As their names suggest, viral infections are caused by viruses, bacterial infections by bacteria.

Antibiotics are effective only against bacterial infections – they cannot help you recover from infections caused by viruses.

Cold and flu are viruses and antibiotics are useless against them. The best treatment is:

  • plenty of rest
  • hot drinks
  • maybe paracetamol to relieve aches, pains and help reduce a high temperature - make sure not to take more than the stated dosage

Viral infections are very common and, as well as cold and flus, they can include many infections of the nose, sinuses, ears, throat and chest. Most of these can be self-treated without the need for a visit to the doctor and definitely no need for an antibiotic.

In fact if you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, you could have some unpleasant side effects like an upset stomach, diarrhoea, or a skin rash.

Don’t forget, if you do have a cough or cold, it’s important to reduce your chances of spreading it to others by following good hygiene practices:

  • wash your hands regularly
  • if you sneeze or cough, use a tissue to help stop the spread of infection

Antibiotics do not prevent viruses such as the common cold or flu from spreading to other persons.

The first place to go if you’re feeling unwell is the pharmacist, who can usually provide over-the-counter medication to help deal with your symptoms until your illness passes.

If you must go to the doctor, don’t demand antibiotics from them.

Take your doctor’s advice. They’ll know what the best action to take is and if they say you don’t need an antibiotic, don’t demand one. 

Bacterial infections

If you have a bacterial infection, your own immune system can clear many of these infections without the need for antibiotics. Antibiotics do little to speed up your recovery from most common infections.

If your symptoms don't go away or if you have any concern, it's important that you see your doctor.

If you really have a severe infection such as bacterial pneumonia, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. 

Antibiotics should only be taken for serious bacterial infections. They are life-saving drugs for infections like pneumonia and meningitis.

If we continue to take antibiotics when we don’t need to, bacteria build up resistance, making antibiotics useless against fighting them. As it is the bacteria and not the person that become resistant to the drugs, antibiotic resistance affects everyone.

Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be difficult to treat so we need to protect the antibiotics we have to make sure they work when they’re needed most.

We all have a role to play in using antibiotics wisely.

More useful links

Share this page

Feedback

Would you like to leave feedback about this page? Send us your feedback