Quality and Population Health

Explaining to Patients Why They Don’t Need Antibiotics for Flu or a Cold

It’s that time of year when many patients come to the office with the flu or a cold. As part of Englewood Health’s antibiotic stewardship program, the Infectious Disease team reminds providers that antibiotics should not be prescribed for the cold or the flu, which are both viral infections.

Antibiotic-resistant germs kill more than 23,000 Americans each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled antibiotic resistance a “fundamental” threat to humanity. Keeping this in mind consider the following: both cold and flu are viral illnesses that do not respond to antibiotics. Antibiotics do not kill viruses. They only kill bacteria. Patients do not need antibiotics for colds, flu, most coughs, bronchitis, sore throats (not caused by strep), runny noses or most ear aches.

Providers may feel pressured to prescribe antibiotics, but should explain to patients that using them the wrong way (such as for a viral infection) can cause bacteria to become drug resistant. This could make their next infection much harder to treat. With a cold, medication is usually used to relieve your symptoms, not cure the cold. For influenza treatment, antiviral medications are available.