Medicines and treatments for respiratory tract infections

Many respiratory tract infections (RTIs) — such as colds, sore throats, and flu — will get better without any treatment.

The treatment that is right for your respiratory tract infection (RTI) will depend on:

  • what type of infection you have (e.g. cold, sinusitis, tonsillitis, sore throat, pneumonia, flu)
  • what is causing the infection (a virus or bacteria)
  • what symptoms you have and how severe they are
  • if you are at risk of complications of the infection (e.g. you have a medical condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]).

Find out more about treatments for particular infections on the condition page for each RTI.

It is important to tell your health professional about all the medicines you are taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements) — as they may interact with your other medicines.

Antibiotics

Many RTIs are caused by a virus so antibiotics are of no use. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses.

If you are in generally good health, your immune system will take care of most respiratory tract infections caused by viruses and even some bacterial infections by itself. However antibiotics are more likely to be needed for:

  • serious infections caused by bacteria like whooping cough
  • people who have an ongoing health condition (such as asthma, type 1 or type 2 diabetes or lung disease)
  • people who are older or in generally poor health
  • people who are at more risk of complications, which are usually bacterial infections (for example older people are more likely to get serious complications from the flu).

Using antibiotics when you don’t need them can contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Find out more about what antibiotic resistance is and what you can do to prevent it.

Medicines to manage your symptoms

There are medicines you can take to help manage the symptoms of respiratory tract infections. These include:

Other options include:

To find out more about managing the symptoms of a particular respiratory tact infection, see the relevant condition pages, or read our page about managing the symptoms of a respiratory tract infection.

Phone for medicines information

Call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to get information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and minerals) from a pharmacist. Your call will be answered by healthdirect Australia.

References
  • Rossi S, ed. eAMH. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook, July 2012.
  • Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3 (accessed 19 March 2012).
  • Linde K, Barrett B, Bauer R, Melchart D, Woelkart K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000530. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub2 (accessed 19 March 2012).
  • Hemilä H, Chalker E, Douglas B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art no.: CD000980. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub3 (accessed 19 March 2012).