Do antibiotics help fight common colds?

Photo of woman reading a package insert (PantherMedia / Bernd Leitner)

It doesn't make sense to use antibiotics in the treatment of simple common colds: They don’t free up a stuffy nose or make the cold go away any faster, but they often cause side effects.

Simple common colds – with symptoms such as coughing, a stuffy nose and sometimes a mild fever – are usually caused by viruses. They almost always go away on their own within about two weeks, and often start to get better after just a few days.

Because antibiotics only fight bacteria, and not viruses, they're usually ineffective against colds. Sometimes a cold may lead to a bacterial infection, though. In that case, antibiotics would have a benefit if they were able to prevent that kind of infection. But because colds almost always clear up on their own without any serious problems, and antibiotics often cause side effects, the pros and cons of using antibiotics need to be carefully considered.

To get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of treating simple common colds with antibiotics, researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration – an international research network – specifically looked for studies in that area. They found a total of eleven studies involving otherwise healthy adults, teenagers and children.

Poor outcome for antibiotics used in simple common colds

The studies showed that antibiotics have no benefits in the treatment of simple common colds. Regardless of whether they had taken antibiotics or not, the participants’ colds lasted equally long. But about 1 out of 10 people who took antibiotics had side effects – usually diarrhea, nausea and other stomach or bowel problems. Other common side effects of antibiotics include skin rashes and, in women, vaginal thrush.

The study results don't support the widespread use of antibiotics to treat simple common colds. Antibiotics should only be considered as a treatment option if a bacterial infection has developed as a result of the cold. But this only happens very rarely.

There is also another good reason for being cautious with antibiotics: Using them too much to treat minor illnesses can make bacteria resistant (unresponsive) to the antibiotics over time. The antibiotics may then no longer be effective in the treatment of more serious infections.