I’m sick. Can’t I just take an antibiotic?

The holiday season has just begun, with tasty foods, festive music and cooler temperatures, welcome to peak cold and flu season! So, how do you know if you have a cold or the flu? And once you are sick, why can’t you just take an antibiotic to get better?

A common cold or the flu?

Rhinovirus, also known as, the common cold develops gradually, rarely with a fever, with sneezing, mild cough, stuffy nose and sore throat as common complaints. No, you can’t catch a cold from being in cooler temperatures. But cold weather than exasperate a preexisting condition (like asthma or allergies) which can then make you more susceptible to a bacteria/viral infection.

In contrast, the flu, caused by various types of viruses, develops quickly, with a fever lasting 3-5 days, severe body aches, chills, and fatigue, and complaints of chest discomfort with a cough and headache. The flu is spread by viruses, mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk, or from hard surfaces that someone touches and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose. Importantly, you are contagious beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Remember that certain people are at a higher risk for complications from the flu (young children and older adults can become severely ill and may need to be hospitalized). 

Currently the mainstay of treatment for the common cold includes treating the symptoms with over the counter medications (analgesics, decongestants, antihistamines, and antitussives). The illness should run its course anywhere between 5-10 days. In this case, an antibiotic will not lessen the symptoms or duration of the illness. Treatment for the flu is twofold, prevention and then treatment if necessary. Following evidence based practice guidelines, every patient is encouraged and advised to get an annual flu vaccination. In addition to treating the symptoms, there are antiviral medications that can lessen the severity and duration of the flu symptoms.  

When do antibiotics help?

Antibiotics are only affective against bacterial infections, not viral. In fact, taking an antibiotic when you have a viral infection does not speed up recovery and may make future bacterial infections harder to treat. Best rule of thumb, when experiencing any cold/flu symptoms go ahead and get checked out by your doctor. The only way to differentiate between rhinovirus, sinusitis, and pharyngitis, bacterial/viral illnesses is through assessment. Your health care provider is the best person to tell you if you need to treat the symptoms or get a prescription for an antibiotic!

Important Facts!

A cough can linger and last 2-4 weeks and remain even after other symptoms have improved

Antibiotics won’t work if it is a viral infection, and most colds are viral infections

Best way to prevent getting sick this holiday season is to make it a habit to wash your hands!


Disclaimer:  Articles are based on real cases seen at Scottsdale Sports Medicine. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only. Please consult your medical professional for individualized healthcare.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC. (2016). Cold and Flu Facts. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/coldflu.htm