Antibiotics are Not Always the Answer During Cold and Flu Season

Many infections are viral and can't be helped with antibiotics, but some infections like flu can be prevented

Antibiotics are Not Always the Answer During Cold and Flu Season
Image: Pixabay
September 21, 2018

No one likes cold and flu season. When it hits, it usually hits hard and brings those stuffy noses, coughs and general yuckiness. When we or someone we love feels bad, we want to help things get better as soon as possible. Many of us might use leftover antibiotics or rush to the doctor to get some. But this may be doing more harm than good.

Most Infections Are Viral, Not Bacterial

Most infections that circulate during cold and flu season are viral, not bacterial. Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether your symptoms are caused by bacteria or viruses since some ailments can be caused by either. This is why it's important to let your doctor evaluate your symptoms and make an appropriate diagnosis.

Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that can live virtually anywhere. Some live in extreme cold or heat while some make their home in our intestines where they help us to digest food. Most bacteria cause no harm to people, but some do cause problems. Some examples include the bacteria that cause strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections.

Viruses are smaller than bacteria and require living hosts to multiply. Otherwise, they can't survive. When a virus invades our bodies, it enters cells and takes over cell functions, redirecting it to make copies of the virus. When the cell finally dies, it releases the new viruses to invade other cells.

Antibiotics are only for bacteria

Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses, such as common colds, the flu, most sore throats, bronchitis and many sinus and ear infections. Taking antibiotics won't cure a viral infection, keep other people from getting, or help your child feel better. This simple fact doesn't stop parents from begging doctors for prescription antibiotics with hopes of making children feel better.

Antibiotic resistance

Taking antibiotics when they aren't needed may cause unnecessary side effects and contribute to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a real problem as bacteria that were once easily treated with cheap antibiotics have become resistance to most and in some cases all other antibiotics.

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious respiratory disease infecting the nose, throat, and the lungs leading to serious complications, hospitalization, and death. The flu can also cause certain health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and lung disease, to become worse.

Preventing the flu with a vaccination

Flu season hits a peak in January or February and can last well into May. The flu, which can be debilitating for days or weeks, can be easily prevented or at least mitigated with a flu vaccination. But many people don't receive their flu vaccinations, which are typically available as early as July.

Since it protects against different strains every year, it's important to get the vaccine before the start of each season. Health officials and researchers from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and other agencies work together to predict which strains of the virus are likely to make an appearance during the next flu season. Vaccines are based on these predictions. The predictions are sometimes good and sometimes not so good. But having the vaccination will at least offer some protection.

The simple message here is to get your flu shot. Sure, it might sting for a second. But if the flu season is really bad you'll be glad you have that added protection. The vaccinations are typically covered in full by most health insurance plans and are available at county health departments.

who should receive a flu vaccination?

Anyone aged 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine annually. The sooner you get it, the better, since it can take about two weeks for your body to develop an immune response to the vaccination. But it's never too late!

Special populations that are more susceptible to infections should definitely receive a vaccination, such as children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those working in close contact with patients. Always seek an opinion from your doctor if you believe you should not receive the vaccination.

double vaccinations for children

A double dose of the flu shot may give young children an extra boost of protection.

A study published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal found that the vaccine is more effective when children between two and eight years old get two doses at least a month apart during the first year they are vaccinated.

The first dose is believed to prime the immune system while the second provides protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children between six months and eight years old get two doses of the flu vaccine the first time they are vaccinated.

Antiviral Flu Drugs

If you do get a bad case of the flu, you can take one of three FDA-approved antiviral drugs: Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate), Relenza (zanamivir), and Rapivab (peramivir). You will need to see your doctor to determine if you really have the flu or some other bug.

Flu Symptoms VS common Cold Symptoms

Winter is flu season, but it is also cold season. Unfortunately, the symptoms for both are fairly similar with minor differences and it may be hard to tell them apart.

Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever (though, not everyone will have a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

Similarly, symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches

Generally speaking, severity is one of the driving differences between the two. The flu will come on suddenly, bringing with it body aches and fatigue, whereas a cold will take a few days to creep up on you. Body aches, if you experience them, will be mild and although you might feel pretty miserable, you won't likely feel real fatigue. A fever is far more common with the flu than with the common cold.

Fighting viral Infections

You can fight a viral infection by making sure the sick person is getting plenty of rest and staying well-hydrated. Some over-the-counter medications are available for symptom relief but they won't make the illness go away any faster. A cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray can help with congestion without using medications.

When to see the doctor

Many illnesses don't need a trip to the doctor's office, but call your doctor if you have any doubt. You should call a doctor if your child;

  • is less than 3 months old and is showing any signs of illness
  • is less than 2 months old and has a fever
  • has a fever of 102 or higher at any age
  • has signs of labored breathing, including wheezing, fast breathing, or showing ribs
  • has blue lips
  • is not eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration
  • has ear pain
  • is excessively cranky or sleepy
  • has a cough that lasts for more than three weeks
  • is getting worse