Action on antibiotics
Taking antibiotics for colds and flu? There’s no point. Colds and flu are caused by a virus and antibiotics do not work on viruses. Lorraine O’Hanlon reports on the rise of antibiotic resistance
The HSE has launched a new campaign, Action on Antibiotics, to highlight the fact that antibiotics don't work against infections caused by viruses, such as colds and flu.
Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria, so there's no point asking your doctor to prescribe them for a cold or flu.
Taking antibiotics when they are not needed puts you at risk of side effects, like a rash, upset stomach or diarrhoea.
Taking antibiotics when you don't need them can also mean that they won't work when you really need them for a serious infection. This is called antibiotic resistance and it happens when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics and learn to resist them.
What is antibiotic resistance?
If you take many courses of antibiotics, bacteria can change so that the antibiotic does not work against them any more. These bacteria are said to be “resistant” to this antibiotic and are much harder to treat.
If you get an infection caused by bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, your infection can last longer. You might have to be treated in hospital.
At the same time, your family members or other people you come in contact with may catch the resistant bacteria that you have. Then these people might also get infections that are hard to cure.
To reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, wash your hands with soap and water before eating and after using the toilet. Regular hand washing helps keep you healthy and prevent the spread of bacteria.
Ask your doctor if you have all the vaccinations you need to protect yourself from infection. If you have young children, make sure they are up to date with their childhood immunisations.
When are antibiotics not needed?
Most common infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. Most viral illnesses get better themselves without antibiotics.
Symptoms including head cold, runny nose, cough, sore throat, sinusitis
ear infections in children, vomiting and diarrhoea are typically caused by viruses and antibiotics are rarely needed to treat them.
When is it OK to take antibiotics?
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for infections that are caused by bacteria, like some chest infections, kidney infection, some ear infections and meningitis.
If you or your child needs antibiotics, make sure you take them exactly as prescribed. If the course isn't completed, some bacteria may be left in your body and become resistant to antibiotics. Never keep or re-use left over antibiotics for the next time you, your child, or any other family member is sick.
Why didn't my doctor prescribe an antibiotic?
It is because your infection is likely caused by a virus and it's safer to let it clear up on its own. Remember, antibiotics are no use against a virus.
The length of time you can expect most common infections to last is:
- Ear infection: around four days
- Sore throat: around one week
- Common cold: around a week and a half weeks
- Sinus infection: around two and a half weeks
- Cough: around three weeks
If your illness lasts longer than this, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
How should I treat a cold, cough or sore throat?
The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids and get some rest. Ask your pharmacist for advice about over-the-counter remedies.
Runny nose, blocked nose or congestion can be treated with nasal decongestant spray, oral decongestant syrup or tablets, menthol or eucalyptus oil preparations, while paracetamol or ibuprofen can help fever, pain, joint or muscle aches.
Honey and lemon, anaesthetic lozenges, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help a sore throat, while antitussive can be used for dry cough to stop you coughing, and mucolytic or expectorant can be used for a chesty cough to help you break up mucus. A cough in a child should be discussed with your doctor or pharmacist.
If you are taking medicines for any other conditions, you must check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any over-the-counter remedies.
Key things to remember
- Most common infections get better by themselves without antibiotics
- Taking antibiotics when you don't need them can put your health, and the health of your family, at risk
- If your doctor decides that you need an antibiotic, be sure you take it exactly as prescribed
- Your pharmacist can advise you on over-the-counter remedies that can help to treat many common infections.
For more details, log onto www.hse.ie.