Antibiotics and Viral Infections: Why They Don’t Work to Treat Cold, COVID-19 or Flu Symptoms


When you’re feeling under the weather, you want a quick way to find relief. Unfortunately, not all symptoms can be fixed by taking a pill or swallowing some medicine. When you have a viral illness, like the flu, COVID-19, or a cold, not having a rapid path to feeling better can be frustrating.

We all know that antibiotics help you feel better when you’re suffering from a bacterial illness, like a sinus infection or ear infection. But sadly, these miracle drugs don’t work when your symptoms are being caused by a virus. In fact, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them increases the risk of antibiotic resistance and makes them less effective when you really do.

Since about 8 out of 10 upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses, antibiotics can’t treat them. In this article, we’ll explore what antibiotics are, why they can’t relieve cold or flu symptoms, and what you can do instead to start feeling better.

What Are Antibiotics and How Do They Work?

Antibiotics have been around since 1928 when penicillin was first discovered. Since then, they’ve saved countless lives and reshaped how we treat bacterial infections. Today, there are more than 100 types of antibiotics that are used to treat everything from mild infections to life-threatening ones.

Antibiotics work by attacking bacteria in your body. Although billions of helpful bacteria live in your body naturally, invading strains can make you sick. Sometimes, the body’s immune system can’t fight off the attackers on its own. Antibiotics offer a helping hand by targeting the harmful bacteria to either kill it directly or stop it from spreading while your body recovers.

Antibiotics and Viral Illnesses

Since antibiotics work by attacking bacteria, they are only effective if there are bacteria to attack. However, most common illnesses are caused by viruses—not bacteria. Viruses are much smaller than bacterial cells and work differently. This means antibiotics can’t attack them and, in turn, can’t relieve your symptoms.

Can Antibiotics Treat Cold and Flu Symptoms?

When you have a cold, COVID-19, or the flu, you usually feel unwell. You might experience a runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, fatigue, or a variety of other symptoms. These are the result of irritation or inflammation and are signs your body’s immune system is fighting back against the viral infection.

Sadly, since antibiotics can’t attack the virus responsible for making you sick, they won’t make you feel better. In fact, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them might even make you feel worse.

Antibiotics come with side effects, including nausea and diarrhea, because they also kill good bacteria in your body—particularly in your gut. This can add to your list of symptoms and make you feel worse without doing anything to treat your cold or flu symptoms.

Antibiotic Overuse and the Dangers

You’ve probably heard that taking antibiotics when you don’t need them is bad. But why? Aside from the side effects we’ve discussed, unnecessary antibiotic use can lead to “superbugs.”

A superbug is a type of bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics. They evolve over time and become more dangerous. Thousands of people die each year from bacterial infections caused by superbugs because they can’t be treated with antibiotics. Preventing these deaths is possible, but can only happen if antibiotics are prescribed only when necessary.

Cold and Flu Remedies That Aren’t Antibiotics

Luckily, your body is designed to fight off viral infections. Though not having a quick fix is frustrating, giving your immune system time to do its job is important. Here are a few remedies you can try to ease your cold, COVID-19, or flu symptoms while your body fights back:

  • Hydration: Staying hydrated is key to getting better. Your body needs plenty of water on a daily basis and even more when you’re sick. Choose water, juice, a sports drink, or tea, and avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.
  • Saline Spray: Using a saline spray or an irrigator like a neti pot can help clear nasal congestion and make it easier to breathe. Be sure to only use distilled or sterile water to prevent further infection.
  • Saltwater Gargle: If you have a sore throat, try gargling with a glass of warm salt water. Add about half a teaspoon to a cup and mix it thoroughly to relieve your symptoms.
  • Use a Cool Mist Humidifier: Adding moisture to the air can help ease congestion in your nose and chest. Again, be sure to use distilled water and clean the humidifier regularly.
  • Rest: Fighting off a viral infection takes a toll on your body. Get plenty of rest and sleep to help your immune system recover. You might be tempted to try and power through your cold, but your body will thank you for taking time to rest.

Velocity Urgent Care is Here to Help

If you’re experiencing cold or flu symptoms, Velocity Urgent Care has your back. Our providers will thoroughly evaluate your symptoms and help determine the right treatment. If you’re suffering from a bacterial infection, we can prescribe antibiotics to help. Or, if your illness is from a virus, we’ll guide you toward the right over-the-counter medications and remedies to ease your symptoms.

Stop in any of our conveniently located clinics across Virginia for rapid care when you need it. You can make an appointment with our online registration portal to skip the waiting room and arrive when it’s your turn to be seen or walk in when it’s convenient. We even offer text message updates so you can wait in the car (if you prefer) until it’s time for your appointment.

We’ve put strict sterilization protocols into place and are carefully handling patients who may be contagious to ensure each of our clinics is safe for those who need urgent medical care or occupational health services.

Velocity Urgent Care is an in-network provider for most major insurance plans, meaning you can be seen for the cost of your co-pay and deductible.

All our locations also accept Medicare, Medicaid, and Tricare. Veterans Administration beneficiaries are also welcome.

To learn more about our services, locations, hours, and more, visit www.velocityuc.com.