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FOR RELEASE: November 12, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

Sniffle or Sneeze: No Antibiotics Please

The Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have news for parents this cold and influenza (flu) season: antibiotics don’t work for a cold or influenza.

Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Viruses cause colds, influenza and most sore throats, and antibiotics simply are not an appropriate course of treatment. Yet try telling that to a parent seeking relief for a child’s runny nose! Recent public opinion research finds that most people still believe “antibiotics cure everything.”

Indeed, many people expect that when they go to their physician with a cold or flu-like illness, they will get a prescription for an antibiotic. Some physicians may yield to their patients’ requests, citing diagnostic uncertainty, time pressure or patient demand as the primary reasons for this over-prescription. This can do more harm than good.

“The inappropriate use of antibiotics is fueling an increase in drug-resistant bacteria that threaten widespread drug-resistant illness,” said Interim State Health Commissioner Dr. Mike Crutcher. “Families and entire communities can feel the impact when disease-causing germs become resistant to antibiotics.”

Crutcher said that over the past decade, inappropriate use of antibiotics has resulted in almost every type of bacteria becoming less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it is needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread through a community, introducing a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

To help Oklahomans become better informed about antibiotic treatment, the CDC and the Oklahoma State Department of Health have launched a public education campaign called Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work. The campaign’s key message is: antibiotics do not effectively treat colds, flu and other viral illnesses. The health agencies are especially interested in using the Get Smart campaign as an opportunity to reach parents of children ages 2 to 6, an age group that has a high percentage of illnesses that may have traditionally been treated with antibiotics.

“Antibiotics are powerful drugs that can work wonders when you need them for bacterial infections,” said Becky Coffman, RN, MPH, nurse epidemiologist and Get Smart project coordinator. “But please don’t insist on antibiotics when your doctor tells you or a family member that the illness is caused by a virus, such as a cold or the flu.”

Coffman said the best treatment for most viral illnesses is simply to treat the symptoms with plenty of rest, fluids, cough medicine and/or an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

“Oklahomans can also protect themselves from influenza by getting their ‘flu’ shot now,” Coffman urged. A pneumococcal vaccination is also advised for people aged 65 and older, she said.

For more information about the appropriate use of antibiotics, check out these Web sites: http://www.health.state.ok.us/program/cdd/ar/index.html and www.cdc.gov/GetSmart . For information about getting an influenza or pneumococcal vaccination, call your health care provider or local county health department.

Note: See following charts for more information on appropriate use of antibiotics and treatment of colds and other viral illnesses.

When Are Antibiotics Necessary?
Your doctor can best answer this question. The answer depends on the diagnosis. Here are a few examples of when antibiotics may be necessary:

  • Ear infections: There are several types; many need antibiotics but some do not.
  • Sinus infections: Most children with thick or green mucus do not have sinus infections. Antibiotics may be needed for some long-lasting or severe cases.
  • Cough or bronchitis: Otherwise healthy adults and children rarely need antibiotics for bronchitis.
  • Sore throat: Viruses cause most sore throats. Only one major kind, “strep throat” requires antibiotics. This condition must be diagnosed by a laboratory test.
  • Colds: Colds are caused by viruses and may last for two weeks or longer.
  • Antibiotics have no effect on colds but your doctor may have suggestions for obtaining comfort while the cold runs its course.

What to do for Colds and Flu
Children and adults with viral infections recover when the illness has run its course. Colds caused by viruses may last for two weeks or longer.

Measures that can help a person with influenza or a cold feel better include:

  • Increase fluid intake.
  • Use a cool mist or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
  • Soothe throat with ice chips, sore throat spray, or lozenges (for older children and adults).

Important: Viral infections may sometimes lead to bacterial infections. Patients should keep their doctor informed if their illness gets worse or lasts a long time.

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