When having a cold – skip the antibiotics!

I’m sure you know the feeling all too well – an important project is coming to its closure, there’s a whole pile of documents waiting for you on your desk, you haven’t been at the gym for weeks and haven’t had a decent night sleep for even longer than that. As the stress becomes overwhelming, you start feeling more tired than usual and you realise a scary thought – you’ve caught a cold. Of course, it’s never the right time to be house bound, so you ask your friends and family about some magic pill that will instantly make you feel better. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but – there is no such thing. The only known cure for a cold is time. Time to lie down and rest, to have litres and litres of tea and countless bowls of chicken soup. Time to recuperate and allow your body to fight the aggressor.

Now, on your quest to find this magical pill, you will hear a very popular advice to take some antibiotics and expect them to get rid of the cold within a day. Let’s talk about this for a moment.

Penicillin is an amazing drug. Revolutionary. Without it, we’d still be in the 18th century, dying from finger infections after getting pricked by a thorn. Although powerful, it is not an almighty medication that cures everything you can think of. And here is why.

This may remind you of a chemistry lesson and I can almost hear you yawning, but hear me out – it is important. Antibiotics are a huge group of medications that kill bacteria. They can destroy the bacteria’s wall or membranes, they can interfere with their enzymes or stop protein synthesis, the results are the same – the bacteria dies and the infection goes away.

Now, this is the main part of our little lesson in microbiology. Colds and flu are caused by viruses. Different types of viruses can be the main culprits, but at the end of the day – they’re viruses. So, if you attack a virus with antibiotics, what do you think will happen?


Avian flu
Photo credit: Mike Licht, / Foter / CC BY

Antibiotics cannot kill viruses. So here’s what usually happens when you take an antibiotic to prevent or treat a common cold. Most of us stop using antibiotics after a few days or as soon as we start feeling better. Since we have millions of bacterial cells in our body, living in perfect balance and not disturbing anyone, in this situation they become exposed to low dosages of antibiotics that don’t kill them, but cause them to develop resistance to the drug you used. Next thing that can happen is that this resistant bacteria uses an opportunity when your immune system is weakened by the virus from the cold that you just fought off. The bacteria then attacks your weakened immune system, which is unable to fight properly, so you take the antibiotic again. And here comes the real problem – that bacteria is now resistant to the antibiotic, so you have to take a stronger one.

The real concern is that we, as a society, have been doing this for a long time now and have developed several strains of highly resistant bacteria that laugh in the faces of the strongest antibiotics we’ve got available. Soon, we won’t have an antibiotic that is strong enough to stop these mutants that we have created. What will we do then?

Here’s something you can do to avoid antibiotic abuse and give your contribution to the fight against antibiotic resistance – only use antibiotics when they are indicated and according to your doctor’s prescription. Antibiotics should be used when you have a bacterial infection, not every time you have a cough or start feeling weak.

Follow the instructions religiously at when and how you should be taking your medication, whether you should be having any food or liquids before or after taking a pill, or whether you should avoid sunshine. Don’t drink alcohol whilst taking antibiotics since that would decrease the medicine’s activity.

Take the entire round of pills as prescribed. Do not stop taking the antibiotic just because you’re feeling better. That is a sure way of creating resistant strains of bacteria.

One more tip – trying to fight the cold without taking a day off will only make things worse. Let your body rest and gather the strength to fight the virus and the cold will go away much faster than usual. Of course, this goes hand in hand with the well-known advice to drink plenty of liquids and eat foods rich in antioxidants and vitamin C.

Take care!

Photo credit: Carsten Schertzer / Foter / CC BY

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