Why do some people need antibiotics?
Do I need an antibiotic?
Cold and flu season is hard on everyone, but for some older people and those who have chronic (ongoing) health conditions, it’s especially difficult. They are more likely to develop complications (such as pneumonia) from simple respiratory tract infections (e.g. colds, flu and chest infections), which most other people recover from without antibiotics.
You may be prescribed an antibiotic when you have a respiratory tract infection if you:
- are over the age of 55 and have health problems
- are a current or past smoker
- are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person
- have a lung problem like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- have cystic fibrosis
- have a long-term health condition such as diabetes or congestive heart failure
- have a weakened immune system
- have a disease that affects your breathing such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.
What to do if you are prescribed an antibiotic
If you, or someone you care for, are prescribed an antibiotic, make sure you:
- know how long you need to take it for— if this is not clear from the pharmacy label, ask your doctor or pharmacist
- always take the antibiotics for as long as the doctor instructs, even if you are feeling better
- don’t take left-over antibiotics or any that weren’t prescribed for you.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria, NOT those caused by viruses. Most common colds and flu are caused by viruses.
Inappropriate use of antibiotics is making them ineffective against some bacteria. This is called antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are different from other medicines because misuse and overuse can make them less effective. With few new antibiotics being developed and antibiotic resistance increasing, it is becoming more difficult to treat infections.
If you have a chronic condition, you are also at greater risk of developing a severe infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That is why it is important to use antibiotics properly and only when they are prescribed for you.
When to see a doctor
Older people and those with chronic conditions should see a doctor for their respiratory infection if they:
- have a flare-up of an ongoing lung problem such as asthma
- have trouble breathing
- have symptoms that don’t improve or that get worse
- develop a high fever, chills, chest pain, or lower-than-normal body temperature (below 36°C)
- feel like the infection has moved lower down in the chest or a cough gets worse.
Preventing the spread of colds and flu
There are things you can do to protect yourself and others:
- Get the annual flu vaccine and check if you need the pneumococcal vaccine (ask your doctor or pharmacist about this).
- Avoid contact with people who have a cold or flu.
- Use tissues to blow your nose, and throw them away after use.
- Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing.
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Wash your hands after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose.
What you can do for a cold…
… to get better
- Get plenty of rest to help your body’s immune system fight off the virus.
- Maintain an adequate fluid intake and avoid alcohol.
- Avoid smoking or exposure to cigarette smoke.
… to relieve respiratory symptoms
- For a sore throat, paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin may be helpful.
- Saline (salty water) nasal sprays or drops can help clear mucus.
- Steam inhalations can also help clear mucus from blocked sinuses.
- A decongestant, such as phenylephrine, may help ‘dry’ a runny nose or relieve blocked sinuses.
Some cold and flu medicines used to relieve symptoms should not be taken by people with particular medical conditions or who are using certain other medicines. Decongestants should not be used for more than a few days.
To choose the best medicine for you, always read the label and ask your doctor or pharmacist for help.