Do antibiotics help fight common colds?

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

To get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of treating simple common colds with , researchers from the – 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 have no benefits in the treatment of simple common colds. Regardless of whether they had taken or not, the participants’ colds lasted a similar amount of time. But about 1 out of 10 people who took had side effects – usually diarrhea, nausea and other stomach or bowel problems. Other common side effects of include skin rashes and, in women, vaginal thrush.

The researchers concluded that there's no good reason for the wide use of in the treatment of simple common colds. Antibiotics should only be considered as a treatment option if a bacterial has developed as a result of the cold. But this only happens very rarely.

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

Kenealy T, Arroll B. Antibiotics for the common cold and acute purulent rhinitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (6): CD000247.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on October 8, 2020
Next planned update: 2023

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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