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Home News centre National Press Releases 2012 Press Releases ›  Antibiotics and you

Antibiotics and you

14 November 2012

On European Antibiotics Awareness Day (EAAD), the Health Protection Agency (HPA) wants everyone to think twice before they ask for antibiotics from their doctor for their cold and flu symptoms.

EAAD aims to raise awareness of the risks associated with the inappropriate use of antibiotics and how to use them responsibly.

Dr Cliodna McNulty, the HPA’s head of primary care and lead on European Antibiotic Awareness Day, said: “We are now well into winter and the usual season of people being unwell with lots of nasty viruses so it is a perfect time to remind people that antibiotics don’t help most coughs, colds and flu sore throats get better faster.

“We all seem to forget just how awful you can feel with a bad cold, let alone flu and this maybe makes us think that we are more poorly than we really are and that we need antibiotics to get better. But this isn’t the case and using your favourite over-the-counter medicines that can help to ease headaches, aching muscles and stop your nose running will make you feel a lot better.”

Cliodna’s tips on surviving the flu season:

  1. For otherwise healthy individuals a cold lasts for one and a half weeks and flu for two to seven days and can be followed by fatigue for two or three weeks. So feeling rotten with a headache, aching muscles, cough, temperature and sore throat unfortunately goes with the territory of having a nasty virus but none of these symptoms will get any better with antibiotics.
  2. Research has shown that 50 per cent of people who visited their GP surgery with coughs and colds did so because they were prolonged or severe and expected to be given antibiotics. Many who visit their doctor’s surgery (24 per cent) just wanted advice about self-care or reassurance (12 per cent). Cliodna says: “Unfortunately there is no magic bullet to rush away the symptoms of a cold, you have to just let the virus work its way out of your body. Speak to your local pharmacist first – they are wonderful at recommending products to relieve symptoms”. Or if you are at your doctors ask him for an antibiotic information leaflet.
  3. A HPA survey found that of the people who are prescribed antibiotics a quarter don’t finish them. This means that the infection may not be treated adequately and low doses (where the course of treatment isn’t finished) encourage the emergence of resistance.
  4. The same research found a six per cent of those who are given antibiotics keep some for future use. Cliodna says: “Keeping antibiotics for any potential future illness is not a good idea. Enough antibiotic has to reach your infection to kill it – taking a lower dose or fewer tablets each day means that some bacteria may survive increasing the risk that the infection could come back. Repeating courses of antibiotics also encourages the emergence of resistance”.
  5. If you have had an antibiotic in the last 6 months your next infection is twice as likely to be resistant to antibiotics. So if you don’t need them don’t take them.
  6. When you visit your doctor he will assess you for several signs of an infection. These are typically rash, temperature and other signs in your throat, chest and ears. If you have a runny nose with a cough, cold or sore throat this usually suggests a viral infection that won’t get better more quickly with an antibiotic. Many get better on their own without antibiotics so don’t always expect them.
  7. If you have a sore throat with a high temperature, with a really red or purulent (the presence of pus) throat and feel really ill but have no runny nose this may be an indication for antibiotics.
  8. If you have already been to your pharmacist and have taken over-the-counter medication but are still thinking of going to the doctor – phone and get advice from NHS Direct beforehand. They can assess you based on your symptoms and you can speak to a nurse if there is any doubt and they can advise whether or not you need to visit your GP.
  9. You may think that bronchitis (persistent coughing, wheezing and the production of grey-green phlegm) should always be treated with antibiotics but this isn’t the case. It is more important to rest and take plenty of fluids and use paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve headaches, fever, aches and pains.
  10. Even if you have a very phlegmy cough this does not mean that you need antibiotics either. Phlegm is produced by the body as a reaction to irritants or any infection. It comes in a variety of colours from grey-green, green and yellow and isn’t always a sign of severe infection
  11. Remember that doctors are now advised not to routinely give antibiotics for chest infections, ear infections in children and sore throats. Ask your doctor for an antibiotic information leaflet.


Notes for editors:

  1. For more information about EAAD please see  
  2. The dose of paracetamol for adults is:
    • one or two 500mg tablets every 4-6 hours
    • up to a maximum of 8 tablets in 24 hours
  3. It is dangerous to take more than 8 tablets in 24 hours as you may damage your liver, which can be fatal.
  4. Do not take paracetamol if you are taking other paracetamol containing medicines such as, co-codamol, co-dydramol, Tramacet, Migraleve and some cough and cold remedies, because of the risk of overdosing with paracetamol
  5. The Health Protection Agency is an independent UK organisation that was set up by the government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. In April 2013, subject to the usual approvals procedures for establishing new bodies, the Health Protection Agency will become part of a new organisation called Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health. To find out more, visit our website: or follow us on Twitter @HPAuk or ‘Like’ us on Facebook at
  6. For more information please contact the national HPA press office at Colindale on 0208 327 7901 or email Out of hours the duty press officer can be contacted on 0208 200 4400.



Last reviewed: 14 November 2012