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Do you REALLY need antibiotics for cold, flu or COVID-19?

Do you REALLY need antibiotics for cold, flu or COVID-19?

Last Updated: April 01, 2021



The spread of COVID-19 around the world has led to much thought on how best to treat and prevent the infection. While we await an effective vaccine, many researchers are tackling the question of treatment, including looking at if currently available drugs used to treat other infections may be useful for this new illness.

You may have also seen some prominent people in positions of power suggesting that antibiotics like azithromycin may be able to treat and even prevent COVID-19. Similar to cold and flu season, you may be starting to ask yourself, “do I really need antibiotics for a sore throat, a nasty cough, or a fever-inducing flu?”

In short, no, you probably don’t. Antibiotics are used to fight infections caused by bacteria but are ineffective against infections caused by viruses, including colds, flus and, you guessed it, COVID-19.

Bacteria, on the other hand, can change when exposed to antibiotics in the body. They develop characteristics, or "resistance" that allow them to fend off or disable antibiotics. Resistance in bacteria can pass to other bacteria in your body. They can also be deposited in the environment or spread to others in your family, community, or hospitals.

In Canada, doctors prescribe one-third more antibiotics than their counterparts in countries such as Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. Is it because Canadians are more likely to be sick than those sauna-loving Scandinavians? Maybe. But maybe not.

The reality is that unnecessary antibiotic use (i.e., getting a drug when you don’t need one) and misuse (i.e., taking the wrong type of drug or too much of a drug) contribute to a rise in resistant bacteria. That may not mean much now, but next time you or your great aunt Trudy is really sick, the wonders of modern medicine – and specifically the right antibiotic – may not work. By then, certain bacteria may have already developed resistance to the very bug-fighting antidotes Canadians rely on daily. And before you start thinking that medical researchers will fly in with their super lab coats and invent new antibiotics, consider that the World Health Organization claims that over the last 30 years, no major types of antibiotics have been developed. It’s worth repeating - no new major antibiotics have been discovered in the last three decades. In 2016, the United Nations elevated the issue of antibiotic resistance to "crisis level".

Time lapse video of how resistance happens:


So you might be asking yourself…what can I do?

For starters: don’t panic. Take a deep breath and wash your hands. Go on…we’ll wait. Use soap. 

Don’t forget to practice your COVID-19 safety measures, by staying home when you are sick (no exceptions), practicing physical distancing and wearing a non-medical or cloth mask in indoor public spaces like in grocery stores, on transit and in other indoor public spaces.

And ensure you are up to date for your routine immunizations, including the seasonal flu immunization.

OK, good…you’ve taken vital steps in combating antibiotic resistance in your home and community. All of these actions help to prevent illness and if you don’t get sick in the first place you won’t need antibiotics and there’s less chance that antibiotics will be used incorrectly or for the wrong reason. 

If and when you get sick – and yes, everyone gets sick from time to time – ask yourself again, "do I need antibiotics?" 
Talk to your healthcare provider or call 8-1-1. But if you have a sore throat, a cough, a cold, sinus pain or the flu, don’t be surprised if your health care provider recommends staying home, and resting instead of doses of penicillin, amoxicillin, erythromycin or even azithromycin. Let’s all be antibiotic wise. 




Antimicrobial Awareness Week (November 18 –  24) promotes cautious and correct use of antibiotics to help prevent and control the spread of bacteria that develop resistance to the medications. For more information, visit: