The common cold 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.
The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It can quickly spread from one person to another. On average, adults get from two to three colds each year. A cold is the most frequent reason why children miss school.
More than 200 types of viruses cause colds, but the most common is the rhinovirus. These viruses are spread by skin-to-skin contact, kissing, sharing drinks, and touching contaminated surfaces. The virus also spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs, putting the virus in the air.
Prevention practices can help you to avoid catching a cold. But if you do get ill, antibiotics aren’t a cure, even if you’re concerned about developing a second infection.
That’s because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Taking them when you don’t need them contributes to a serious problem: antibiotic resistance.
You’ve probably noticed that colds are more frequent in colder months. People spend more time indoors in confined spaces, such as home, school and the office. There’s a higher risk for exposure.
Another risk factor is age. Infants and young children are at a higher risk.
If you have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or a drug, you’re also at a higher risk.
Colds usually get better on their own. Your healthcare provider or pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter medications for your 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. Antibiotics could lead to unpleasant side effects, unnecessary costs and a potentially life-threatening illness with severe diarrhea known as Clostridium difficile infection.
Choosing Wisely: Colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses in adults (PDF)
Choosing Wisely: Antibiotics for a sore throat, cough, or runny nose (PDF)