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When Should You Take Antibiotics? Here’s What You Need to Know


It starts out as the sniffles, but by the time you wake up the next morning, you know it’s here: a cold. And it feels like a bad one. Stuffy head, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, the works. Time to call the doctor and get some antibiotics, right? Maybe not.

Antibiotics can be powerful medicine. But you have to use them safely and correctly. And sometimes that means not using them at all.

Know Your Germs

The first thing to know is that antibiotics are not an all-purpose cure. If you have a bacterial infection—like pneumonia—they can be a big help. But most common colds and flu are caused by different kinds of germs called viruses. So antibiotics won’t help you fight these illnesses at all. And sometimes, they can even be harmful. 

Antibiotics work by fighting bacteria that make you sick, either by killing them or stopping them from growing. But sometimes, bacteria learn how to resist an antibiotic. The more often antibiotics are used, the bigger the risk that this can happen. And you can end up with stronger bacteria that are very hard to treat. These resistant bacteria can cause serious illness or even death.

That’s why you should take antibiotics only when your doctor says they are necessary. Not sure if you have a virus or bacterial infection? Ask your doctor for advice.

Antibiotics Do’s and Don’ts

Follow these guidelines for using antibiotics.


  • Take them for bacterial infections.

  • Take all of the medication prescribed. (If you use only part of the medicine, it can mean you treated only part of the infection.)


  • Take them for common cold symptoms like runny noses and coughs. Your body will fight off the illness on its own.

  • Take them unless your doctor says you need them. They won’t help and won’t prevent other people from catching your cold. And they can create stronger bacteria that are harder to treat.


© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.