Sorry, but antibiotics won't cure your cold. Here's what you need to know

An expert says when it comes to antibiotics, if you don't need them — don't take them.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Colorful pills and capsules on blue background. Minimal medical concept. Flat lay, top view. An expert says it's best to not take antibiotics if you don't need them. But how can you know? (Getty)
An expert says it's best to not take antibiotics if you don't need them. But how can you know? (Getty)

With cold and flu season upon us, it's important to stay informed on the best ways to keep yourself healthy.

Navigating sniffles and sore throats can be a seasonal rite of passage, but how do you discern whether it's a job for hot tea or if you need the big guns – antibiotics?

To help you make the call, Yahoo Canada spoke with Wendy Levinson, Canadian physician and the chair of Choosing Wisely Canada.

Read on for everything you need to know about antibiotics.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines designed to treat bacterial infections.

According to WebMD, "they do this by killing the bacteria or by keeping them from copying themselves or reproducing."

Some examples of bacterial infections include:

  • Some ear and sinus infections

  • Dental infections

  • Skin infections

  • Meningitis

  • Strep throat

Only infections from bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, and not all antibiotics are the same.

Levinson emphasized "bacteria are different from viruses. They're just a different kind of organism, and viruses are not treated by antibiotics."

When it comes to viruses, "antibiotics really don't help," she said.

You have symptoms. How can you tell whether it's bacteria or a virus?

Sick woman laying in bed with a thermometer and tissues, having a fever, EPS 8 vector illustration
If your body temperature is under 38 degrees, it's unlikely to be a bacterial infection. (Getty)

Viruses — like COVID-19 or influenza — are much more likely to cause routine symptoms.

Levinson explained a runny nose, a sore throat, mild fever and a bit of a cough, are "very, very common symptoms" that "almost always" go away within four days.

"What's most appropriate is to wait and watch, treat ourselves by rest, a lot of fluids and acetaminophen, or something to bring the temperature down."

Even if you might have a very sore throat and think it could be an infection, Levinson advises to "wait and watch."

According to her, if your body temperature is under 38 degrees, it's unlikely to be a bacterial infection.

"Almost all the kinds of things we treat — a cough, a sore throat, sinus, discomfort, cough — we encourage people to wait and watch and treat themselves... not to race to antibiotics."

The only way to really know is to get evaluated by a physician.

Are antibiotics dangerous when unnecessary?

The rule of thumb, for Levinson, is "you should use a drug when you need it, but not when you don't."

Every single drug has some side effects, she said, even though they're not frequent. "If you're the rare person who has a bad side effect, an allergic reaction or a severe reaction, that is something you don't want to risk."

You should use a drug when you need it, but not when you don't.Dr. Wendy Levinson

It's a good thing to not need an antibiotic, she reminded.

In addition to potential side-effects, Levinson warned of antibiotic resistance — a public health problem.

"More and more of the bacterial infections that really do need antibiotics are starting to have built resistance to antibiotics," she explained.

This means it can become harder to treat infections, and is more of a problem in people who are hospitalized. However we, as a society, "by using a lot of antibiotics, help to set the environment that bacteria become more resistant."

Should you be using leftover antibiotics from a previous diagnosis?

Selecting a Prescription Drug stock illustration
Taking leftover prescribed medication is not recommended, an expert says. (Getty)

It's not uncommon to get a prescription and then store it in the back of your cabinet "just in case." But according to expert Levinson, using leftover antibiotics is strongly discouraged.

Firstly, Levinson said, current symptoms might not be caused by the same organism as the first illness that warranted an antibiotic. Then, a new infection might need an entirely different antibiotics based on symptoms.

And again, a virus is more likely to cause symptoms than a bacteria.

No amount of antibiotics will cure a common cold.Dr. Wendy Levinson

She added it's also important to note that people should be properly disposing of unused prescriptions. They shouldn't be lying around, at reach of others, Levinson said.

"Taking back any medication that's not finished, or you're not using, to the pharmacist... is definitely best practice for all of us to do."

How to talk to your doctor about antibiotics

Levinson said discussing any medications with a doctor or nurse is worth doing before taking it.

When speaking to a practitioner about antibiotics and other drugs, Levinson advises patients to ask the following four questions:

  1. Do I really need this drug?

  2. What are the side effects or downsides?

  3. Are there simpler, safer options?

  4. What happens if I do nothing?

According to her, all patients should keep these in mind. Choosing Wisely also offers a long list of patient resources on the safe use of antibiotics.

The doctor's final word of advice? "Keep safe and don't use them when you don't need them."

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