Can I Take Antibiotics for the Flu?

What medications should you take?. SteveColeImages/Vetta/Getty Images

If you have been diagnosed with the flu or even just think you might have it, you likely want it to go away as quickly as possible. The flu is worse than just a bad cold and it can leave you in bed and miserable for a week or more.

But what can you do to treat it? If you go to the doctor, will he prescribe antibiotics?

Antibiotics for the Flu?

Antibiotics will not cure the flu. The flu is caused by a virus (influenza) and antibiotics only kill bacteria. In addition to the fact that antibiotics won't work on the flu, taking them when you have a viral illness also contributes to an increase in antibiotic resistance both in your own body and in the world around us. It's a serious problem that is only getting worse.

If you have developed a secondary bacterial infection as a result of the flu, your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics to treat that infection. If you are diagnosed with the flu and your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure you talk to him and understand what the medication is for before you leave. Some questions to ask include:

  1. Why do I need this medication?
  2. What are my diagnoses? If I have the flu, do I also have another infection/illness?
  3. How long do I need to take this medication and what side effects should I expect?
  4. Are there any other medications (over the counter, herbal or alternative) that I should or shouldn't take while I am sick or taking this antibiotic?

The bottom line is antibiotics just won't work to treat the flu, so don't ask for them.

Flu Treatment Options

Even though antibiotics won't work, there are options out there to treat your flu symptoms. If you are at high risk for complications from the flu and you seek treatment early in your illness (ideally within 48 hours of the start of your symptoms), you may be able to take an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, Xofluza, or Relenza. These medications can shorten the severity and duration of your illness and may reduce your chances of developing a secondary infection. They are different from antibiotics because they used against viruses, not bacteria.

If you are not a candidate for antiviral medications, you can take over the counter medications to get relief from your symptoms.

Non-medication options include neti-pots, saline spray, humidifiers, lots of rest and fluids!

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

Of course, the best way to "treat" the flu is to not get it in the first place. Flu vaccines, while not a guarantee, are the best prevention option we have right now. There are many flu vaccine options available now if you aren't a fan of the traditional flu shot.

If you can't or don't want to get a flu vaccine, there are other steps you can take to avoid getting the flu. They are helpful even if you do get vaccinated as well. Always make sure you are washing your hands frequently with soap and water, use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't available and avoid people that are sick as much as possible, especially if you have a weakened immune system.

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