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Antibiotics are real life-savers — but if we continue to abuse them, they won't be for much longer. Here's why you should never ask for antibiotics when dealing with a flu or the common cold.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public-health threats of our era. As much as I'd like to say that people will once again die from scrapes, cuts, or simple surgeries if we do not solve this problem soon, the consequences of antibiotic resistance are already all too real right now.

In Thailand, antibiotic resistance causes an estimated 38,000 additional deaths a year. In the European Union, a collection of highly developed countries, that number is 25,000. [1] The beginning of that oh-so apocalyptic-sounding post-antibiotic world is already here

"Inappropriate prescription of antibiotics" is a prime cause of antibiotic resistance, research strongly indicates [2], and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CD) estimates that a third of antibiotic prescriptions in the US alone are wholly unnecessary. Most of those cases involve antibiotic prescriptions for viral infections [3].

The fact that antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections but do nothing against viruses bears repeating, then. 

Now, doctors carry a heavy burden of blame here, but so do patients. One study revealed that while 89 percent of patients correctly believed that antibiotics are an effective treatment for many bacterial infections, more than half incorrectly held that they could also help with viral ones. Holding this blatantly wrong belief frequently led patients to expect doctors to give them antibiotics for things antibiotics could not possibly help them with, the study added. [4]

With flu and cold season now in full swing, many people are gonna get ill — and you just might be one of them. If you are, you shouldn't be asking for antibiotics.

The common cold and influenza: What are they?

"The" common cold isn't one thing, but rather hundreds of different things. To be precise, over 200 different viruses can inflict that runny, stuffed, nose, sneezing, sucky feeling, and even a low-grade fever. Most of these are rhinoviruses ("rhino" means nose, as in "rhinoplasty"), but others, such as the respiratory syncytial virus, can also lead to the same symptoms. [5]

The flu (influenza), a much more serious problem that often causes serious aches and pains, a higher fever, and can sometimes lead to hospitalization or even death, is also caused by a number of different viruses. [6]

Things you can do to prevent catching a common cold include washing your hands often and properly, not touching your face with dirty hands, and staying away from people with symptoms. Though these things also help protect against the flu, a flu shot is your best protection against this virus.

And if you do get sick?

A common cold should clear within a week or two. In the meantime, it's good if you can rest and stay well-hydrated, while also replenishing your body with healthy foods. You can use a nasal decongestant and gargle with salt water to minimize your discomfort, and even use an over-the-counter painkiller if you feel you need to. You do other people a favor by staying at home, where you cannot spread your germs around as easily. [7]

Antiviral medications can help you out if you have just noticed the symptoms of a potential flu, meanwhile, so give your healthcare provider a call. They can give you a quick test for the flu, after which they'll be able to help you with further instructions. The flu usually requires nothing beyond what you'd do for a really bad cold:

  • stay in bed,
  • take fever reducers,
  • keep hydrated, and
  • eat healthy, vitamin-rich foods if you can stomach them.

People who belong to a vulnerable group — children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems — benefit from further monitoring, however. People who can't eat, can keep fluids down, can't breathe well, or appear dehydrated or confused need emergency medical care. [8]

In Conclusion

The common cold can be pretty unpleasant, while the flu is often downright dangerous. This does not mean that a class of medication designed to treat bacterial infections can suddenly treat your viral infection.

  • If you live in a country where you can buy antibiotics over the counter (even if that actually isn't strictly allowed), don't.
  • If you live in one where they require a prescription, don't try to talk your doctor into prescribing you medications that will not help you.
  • Question your doctors if they do attempt to give you antibiotics for a cold or flu. 
By using antibiotics only where they are needed, by not asking for them and refusing them where they're not, you play your own little but vital part in the fight against antibiotic resistance. This can be compared to the bit where people tell you every vote counts before a national election, or to people saying you not using those plastic bags and straws anymore helps save the environment. One individual's actions may not matter much, but cumulatively, a whole lot of individuals' actions mean a whole lot. Plus, why go through the trouble of getting up at odd hours to take a medication that will not help you one little bit?

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