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Antibiotic Use


Antibiotics will not help you get better from the flu. Using antibiotics when they are not needed could cause more harm like side effects and antibiotic resistance.

Influenza is caused by a virus. And because it is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help you feel better, because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Using antibiotics when they are not needed could cause more harm, including side effects and antibiotic resistance.

What is influenza (“the flu”)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus. The influenza virus tends to cause infections most commonly in the winter and early spring months. The flu can spread when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

What are the symptoms of flu?

The symptoms of flu include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people, however, can have minimal or no symptoms. While most people will have an uncomplicated illness from the flu, severe illnesses and deaths occur every year. See below for warning signs for when to contact your healthcare provider.

How are symptoms of a cold different from flu symptoms?

While there is significant overlap between cold and flu symptoms, the common cold tends to build up over several days, while the flu tends to have rapid onset over a few hours or 1 day. The chart below explains some of the differences.

Symptom COLD FLU
Symptom Onset Develops over several days Rapid onset (within 3-6 hours). Includes sudden symptoms like high fever and body aches
Fever* Uncommon with colds Fever of 100°F or higher for 3 to 4 days
Body Aches Mild body aches can accompany colds Severe body aches are common
Chills Uncommon with colds Majority of people will experience chills
Cough A hacking mucous-producing cough is often present A non-mucous-producing / dry cough is usually present
Stuffy Nose Common and will last several days to a week Less common with flu
Sore Throat Common with colds Less common with flu
Fatigue / Tiredness Fairly mild with colds Moderate to severe with flu
Sneezing Common with colds Unusual with flu
Headache Mild to moderate with colds Extremely common with flu
Chest Discomfort Mild to moderate with colds Often severe with flu
Vomiting & Diarrhea Very uncommon with colds Seen rarely with seasonal flu, more common with H1N1
*It is important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

What should you do if you are sick with the flu?

Most people with the flu have mild illness. In most cases of mild flu, it is best to stay home and avoid contact with others, if possible, to try to prevent the flu from spreading. But if symptoms do not start to get better in 6-7 days, contact your healthcare provider.

If you have any of the following risk factors and flu-like symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away.

  • Age <5 years old or >65 years old
  • Pregnancy
  • Liver disease
  • Lung disease (including asthma or COPD)
  • Immune disorders (including HIV)
  • Diabetes
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Kidney disease

What are the emergency warning signs of the flu?

If you are experiencing any of the below symptoms, you should go to the emergency room.

Emergency Warning Signs in Children Emergency Warning Signs in Adults
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish or gray skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Not waking or interacting with others
  • Being irritable and not wanting to be held
  • Flu symptoms improve, then return with fever and worse cough
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu symptoms improve, then return with fever and worse cough

Should all patients go to the emergency room?

No. The emergency room should be used for people with the flu who are very sick (see the emergency warning signs chart above). If you are mildly ill, you should not go to the emergency room. You should call your provider for his/her advice.

How long should I stay home if I’m sick?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that patients stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has resolved, without the use of a fever-lowering medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Of course an exception would be that patients should leave home to seek medical care if needed.

Recommended treatment:

The flu is caused by a virus so antibiotics will not help you to get better. Antibiotics will not cure a cold or runny nose and could cause harm in both children and adults. Consequences of using antibiotics when not needed include side effects (rash, diarrhea, upset stomach), antibiotic resistance (antibiotic no longer effective against bacteria), or a life threatening diarrheal illness called Clostridium difficile infection.

If you are diagnosed with the flu by your healthcare provider, there are antiviral medications that can be used to treat the flu. The antiviral medication may help your symptoms to go away faster. But most people will get better on their own, even without taking an antiviral. You should seek an antiviral if you have any of the risk factors mentioned above.

Uncommonly, influenza can be followed by a bacterial infection like pneumonia. When this happens, people are usually getting better from their flu illness, then suddenly get worse again with fever, cough, and other symptoms. In this case, you should contact your healthcare provider for testing and potential treatment.

What to do to feel better:

Your healthcare provider or pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter medications for your flu symptoms. Use the medicine as directed and follow the age guidelines. Children under a certain age should not take many of the available over-the-counter products.

Remember, antibiotics — which kill bacteria — will not cure the common cold, which is caused by viruses. You may need a specific antiviral medication that treats influenza.

What can I do to protect myself from the flu?

  • Get vaccinated with the influenza vaccine every year!
  • Keep your distance from people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.