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Antibiotics and winter bugs

November 16, 2023
Antibiotics and winter bugs
November 16, 2023

When you’re full of the flu or just can’t shake that cough/cold, you’d probably do anything for a prescription to make you feel better. But after a trip to the doctor’s, who hasn’t felt disappointed when their GP says antibiotics aren’t the answer? 


With concerns over antibiotic-resistance, doctors these days are much more mindful over prescribing them – and rightly so, says ZoomDoc’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenny LIvingstone.


‘There’s no doubt that a bad cold or virus can make you feel really unwell, but most viruses really will get better on their own, with rest, fluids and time. It’s frustrating but antibiotics just won’t help – and taking them too often or when they’re not needed simply increases the risk of antibiotic resistance – where they don’t work when you really need them to,’ he says.


So what do antibiotics help with and how can you get a prescription when you really do need one? Here’s what you need to know …


What exactly are antibiotics?


Antibiotics are used to treat or prevent some types of bacterial infection.


‘Antibiotics are used to treat specific types of bacterial infection, by killing the bacteria and stopping it from spreading,’ says Dr Kenny.


There are lots of different types with some better at treating milder, more common infections  (such as tonsillitis or ear infections, if required) and others better for serious illnesses (such as sepsis and meningitis.)


Penicillin is one of the more commonly prescribed groups of antibiotics, although if you’re allergic to this kind then you’ll be recommended an alternative.


What can antibiotics treat?


Antibiotics work by blocking vital processes in bacteria. They kill the bacteria or stop it from spreading.



‘Bacterial infections, not viruses’, says Dr Kenny. ‘Antibiotics are not effective against colds, coughs or viral infections, which are common at this time of year,’ he says.


They should only be used to treat serious or persistent bacterial infections that could spread easily, could cause complications or don’t get better, such as:



They can sometimes be used preventatively, too. For instance, before or after an operation to avoid infection to a wound, or ahead of labour if you test positive for Group B Strep, to prevent this being spread to your newborn baby.


If a course of antibiotics doesn’t work then your GP may prescribe an alternative antibiotic to try. Always finish the full course, even if you start feeling better.


Pros and cons of antibiotics


The overuse of antibiotics in recent years means they’re becoming less effective and has led to the emergence of “superbugs”.


There’s no doubt that antibiotics have the power to save lives – a huge pro. 


However, in order to remain that way, the NHS no longer recommends them for ‘routine use’ when treating infections, such as throat, ear and chest infections, instead reserving them for when they’re really needed.


It says this is because:


  • ‘many infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not effective
  • antibiotics are often unlikely to speed up the healing process and can cause side effects
  • the more antibiotics are used to treat trivial conditions, the more likely they are to become ineffective for treating more serious conditions.’


‘Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem where overusing them in the past has made them less effective. A consequence of this is the emergence of superbugs, which simply don’t respond to antibiotics and can be fatal,’ says Dr Kenny.


And as with any medications, antibiotics carry the risk of side effects, such as nausea, rashes, drowsiness or breathing difficulties. Call your GP if you suffer any side effects or think you may be allergic to what you’ve been prescribed.


Antibiotics can also impact the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill so make sure you use extra protection while taking them.


Alternatives to antibiotics


Ibuprofen is used to manage and treat inflammatory diseases, rheumatoid disorders, mild to moderate pain & fever.


If you’re feeling unwell and viral this winter, there are medicines you can use to alleviate symptoms and reduce fever or pain.


‘To help manage symptoms, take age-appropriate doses of paracetamol in a 24-hour period. If this doesn’t help you can alternate paracetamol doses with ibuprofen,’ says Dr Kenny.


Unfortunately there is no evidence that cough medicines or cough remedies work. The US is also considering banning the sales of over-the-counter decongestant products containing the ingredient phenylephrine, which studies show to be ineffective.


Getting a prescription for antibiotics


Order repeat prescriptions, and learn how pharmacists can help you with medicines and medical advice.


You can’t get antibiotics without a GP prescription, which you’ll need to pay for (unless you’re eligible for free prescriptions).


If you’re struggling to get a doctor’s appointment, call the practice and explain what you need. It’s possible the GP will need to see you but if you need a repeat course of antibiotics or an alternative course, you may be able to get this arranged over the phone.


Alternatively, talk to a ZoomDoc GP via our app and one of our doctor’s will be able to assess whether you need antibiotics, or not. If you do then we can include a prescription as part of our service but you will still have to pay for it at the pharmacy, unless you have an exemption.


Do not be tempted to buy prescription medicine online, which could be counterfeit and highly unsafe.

Want to know more?

Our team of Doctors are available via the ZoomDoc App for any medical questions or queries.