September 22, 2022

Can I take antibiotics to treat the flu?

Most of us have tried and experienced effective ways to combat flu symptoms, like sipping chicken soup to fight a sore throat and wrapping ourselves in warm blankets to stave off the chills.

Maybe you call your doctor too. But before asking for medication, read the difference between bacterial and viral infections. What you caught will determine your treatment.

Viral infections and antibiotics

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, but the flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics are not an effective treatment for the flu. “In fact, antibiotics can do more harm than good if you have the flu,” says Tyler Policht, MD, a family physician at Geisinger. “They won’t help you feel better, and they can cause other health problems.”

This is because viruses infect your body in a different way. Viruses infect your cells and multiply inside them. For the virus, your cells act as a kind of “Trojan horse” so that they can reproduce. Because they hide in your cells, antibiotics cannot affect viruses in the same way.

Antibiotics: Too much of a good thing

The fewer antibiotics we take, the better – for ourselves and for the entire planet.

Although antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria, they can miss bacteria like Clostridium difficile (C difference.). After taking antibiotics, you may have a C difference. infection, which causes diarrhea and may require emergency medical attention. Antibiotics can also cause abdominal pain and yeast infections like vaginosis or thrush.

Overuse of antibiotics also contributes to the emergence of “super bugs” or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So avoiding antibiotics when possible is one way to promote good health in the world.

Prevention is the best cure

Staying healthy during flu season starts with prevention.

“The best way to avoid catching the flu is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Pocht said. “The flu shot may not be 100% effective, but even if you get sick after getting the shot, it’s likely your illness won’t be as bad.”

Getting the flu shot is easier than ever for Geisinger patients. Get your flu shot without an appointment during business hours at:

To avoid longer waiting times, you can make an appointment.

Viral flu treatments

If you feel sick, talk to your doctor and ask if you have a bacterial or viral infection. From there, they can tell you which treatment is best. If it’s bacterial, antibiotics can help. But if it’s viral, it has to run its course.

If you have the flu and seek treatment early enough, doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs for the first two days to shorten the duration of illness and limit its severity. If you are diagnosed with the flu after this, over-the-counter medications can still help treat some symptoms.

Even without medication, viruses are “self-limiting,” meaning they go away with or without treatment. Also try some home remedies, such as:

  • Rest: Sleep will help your immune system fight disease.
  • Drink lots of fluids: Water, honey-lemon tea, broth, and 100% juice can help you feel better and stay hydrated.
  • Home remedies: Using menthol ointment, taking a warm bath, eating chicken soup, and other proven cold and flu remedies can help relieve symptoms.

If you notice you’re not feeling better after 10 days of a cold or flu, or if your symptoms are getting worse at any time, talk to your doctor. People at high risk for flu complications include:

  • young children
  • Adults 65 and over
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease

Vaccines, plenty of rest, and staying on top of your diet will always help your immune system fight off the flu.

“There are things you can do to prevent others from getting sick,” says Dr. Policht. “Stay home except to see a doctor, cover your cough and wash your hands often.”

Next steps:

4 reasons to get the flu shot
4 Flu Season Etiquette Tips to Keep You (and Everyone) Healthy
Meet Tyler Policht, MD