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Just as a hammer is the wrong tool to shovel snow, an antibiotic is the wrong “tool” to treat infections caused by viruses, including colds and flu.

Antibiotics only fight infections caused by bacteria. Like all medications they can be harmful and should only be used when necessary. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need to, can do more harm than good. It won’t make you better and could even cause other problems like a skin rash, diarrhea, or a yeast infection.

Also, any time antibiotics are used, they can lead to antibiotic resistance (bacteria that survive despite treatment). This can make future infections harder to treat and means that antibiotics might not work when you really do need them. That’s why it is important that you only use an antibiotic when it is necessary to treat your illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health advise using antibiotics only when necessary, to protect patients from the side effects of antibiotics and to help reduce antibiotic resistance and the spread of superbugs.

What can you do?

  • Get the facts about antibiotics. Antibiotics can save lives, but they do not work on viruses, such as those that cause colds, flu, bronchitis, or runny noses. When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and the side effects could still hurt you.
  • Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about the best way to feel better.
  • While your body fights off a virus, pain relievers, fever reducers, saline nasal spray or drops, warm compresses, liquids, and rest can help you feel better.
  • If you need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about your antibiotics.
  • Do your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy by cleaning hands, covering coughs, staying home when sick, and getting recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine.

This winter, and all year long, make sure you’re using the right tool for the job! The CDC encourages families to learn more by visiting their website.

Written By:


Communications Director at the Department of Public Health

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