Cold and flu season: do I need antibiotics?

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Our resident pharmacist recommends the best treatments for coughs and colds.

By Rita Ghelani

Can’t shake that sore throat? If your pesky cold has been lingering for weeks and you still feel dreadful, you might consider asking your doctor for antibiotics. But do you really need them, and more importantly, will they actually work?

In a bid to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, Public Health England (PHE) has relaunched its national campaign across England to support the government’s efforts to further reduce inappropriate prescriptions for antibiotics. Doctors are instead being urged to recommend honey and over-the-counter remedies as the ‘first point of call’ for coughs and colds.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. But bacteria can adapt and find ways to become ‘antibiotic resistant‘, so that antibiotic medicines no longer work. The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. The frequency of antibiotic resistance infections is increasing and this can be life-threatening for the young and old, who are at most risk of resistant infections.

When do I need to see the doctor?

Opt for over-the-counter remedies, honey and lemon and plenty of bed rest to treat coughs and colds. But if you experience any of the following symptoms, then visit your doctor to discuss treatments:

✔️ If you have very severe symptoms.

✔️ If your symptoms have not improved after a week.

✔️ You frequently get a sore throat.

✔️ If you get a sore throat when your immune system is suppressed because of an illness such as HIV, chemotherapy or a certain medicine that you may be taken.

How to treat coughs and colds

A recent survey conducted for Ultra Chloraspetic – a sore throat medication, shows that that there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards antibiotic use for minor infections and people have started to get the message. So, what can you do to treat your cold without a visit to the doctors?

There has been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards antibiotic use for minor infections.

Sore throats are usually the first sign of a cold. On average they last no more than a week and there is generally no need to consult a doctor. The majority of sore throats (90 per cent) are caused by viral infection, with only one in 10 due to bacterial infection.

‘In most cases, a sore throat will clear up of its own accord, although the pain can last for around a week,’ says community pharmacist Noel Wicks. ‘Warm drinks can provide short-lived relief from the pain and discomfort of a throat infection.’

When to visit your pharmacist

If you have a cold and you’re not sure what to take, visit your pharmacist. They can provide you with reassurance and advise on any red-flags such as underlying health problems, potential medicine interactions and screen for signs of more serious infection such as glandular fever.

If you have a cold and you’re not sure what to take, visit your pharmacist.

‘Gargling with salty water provides some relief because it helps loosen mucus and draws excess fluid out of throat tissue which has become inflamed,’ recommends ear, nose and throat surgeon Alasdair Mace.

‘However, the quickest way to achieve effective and targeted pain relief is to use a fast-acting local anaesthetic relief, such as benzocaine which can provide rapid relief of sore throat symptoms.’

Other sore throat treatments

To ease cough and cold symptoms, try the following:

✔️ Use a lozenge or pastille to help lubricate and soothe a sore throat.

✔️ Gargle with soluble aspirin (300mg) is effective for inflamed sore throats.

✔️ Try a warm drink of honey and lemon.

✔️ Take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Soluble or liquid formulations of these painkillers are a good option if you are finding it difficult to swallow.

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