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Why Antibiotics don't work on the Cold

As mask ordinances and social distancing measures ease, some have reported concern for a resurgence in cold and flu infections that were tampered down in addition to Covid-19. Often, during the cold and flu season antibiotics are overprescribed -- today, we’ll dig into why they don’t work against colds.

How Antibiotics work

Antibiotics work against bacterial infections, and they take one of two forms. Either they work by slowing down the growth of bacteria and limiting its ability to reproduce and spread, or they work by destroying the cell walls and in turn, killing the bacteria. The type of antibiotic used depends on the type of bacterial infection.

However, the common cold is caused by a virus, not a bacterial infection at all.

How Viruses differ

Viruses are capable of surviving and reproducing in a different way than bacteria. While bacteria attack from outside of cells and can reproduce on their own, viruses essentially move into the cells and take over, attaching to your healthy cells and “reprogramming” them to create more copies of the virus.

They also don’t have a cell wall that can be destroyed by antibiotics, but rather a protective protein coating that antibiotics are useless against.

Why not take antibiotics “just in case?”

Taking an antibiotic when you don't need it is dangerous for you, and for everyone around you. Bacteria, like any other living organism, can adapt to changes in its environment. If bacteria is exposed to antibiotics enough, it can become resistant to them. This means the next time you really do need an antibiotic to fight off an infection -- potentially one more serious than a cold-- they may not work on your immune system as intended. Eventually, harmful infections caused by bacteria might not be able to be treated in anyone, because they have evolved to resist the antibiotics they were over-exposed to.

The FDA maintains that antibiotics are strong, essential tools in medicine that we all rely on -- it’s important to keep them effective by only taking antibiotics for viral infections when prescribed by a doctor, and to ensure you finish the full course of antibiotics. Even if you begin to feel better before your course is up, finish taking what you have been provided with. You can safely treat your cold symptoms at home with over the counter medication, supplements, and home-remedies.

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