Antibiotics for respiratory tract infections - overview

Many common respiratory tract infections (RTIs) — such as colds, sinusitis, sore throats and flu — are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are of no use. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses.

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.

If you are usually healthy and well, your immune system will take care of most respiratory tract infections — both viral and some bacterial infections — by itself.

However, antibiotics are more likely to be needed for people who:

  • have serious infections caused by bacteria (e.g. whooping cough)
  • have an ongoing health condition (e.g. asthma, diabetes or lung disease)
  • are older or in generally poor health, or have a weakened immune system (e.g. due to HIV infection or some medicines)
  • have a higher risk of complications with a respiratory tract infection (complications often include bacterial infections).

Dr Nick Carr explains why antibiotics won’t help a cold get better faster, or stop a cold from spreading or getting worse. Find out who really needs antibiotics and when.

Which antibiotic is best for my infection?

There are many different types of antibiotics that can be used to treat respiratory tract infections, if they are needed. The best antibiotic for your infection will depend on what infection you have and what bacteria are causing it.

Antibiotics (brand name examples are in brackets) for respiratory tract infections include:

  • amoxycillin (e.g. Moxamox, Amoxil, Alphamox)
  • amoxycillin with clavulanic acid (e.g. Augmentin Duo)
  • azithromycin (e.g. Zithromax, Zitrocin)
  • cefaclor (e.g. Ceclor CD, Karlor CD, Keflor CD)
  • cefuroxime (e.g. Zinnat)
  • clarithromycin (e.g. Clarac, Clarithro)
  • doxycycline (e.g. Doxy-50, Doxylin)
  • erythromycin (e.g. Eryc)
  • roxithromycin (e.g. Rulide, Biaxsig, Roxar)