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Have the flu? Antibiotics aren’t for you.

Most of us have tried and true ways we combat flu symptoms, like sipping chicken soup to fight the sore throat and wrapping up in warm blankets to ward off the chills.

Maybe you call your doctor, too. But before you ask for any medications, read about the difference between bacterial and viral infections. What you’ve caught will determine your treatment. 

Viral infections and antibiotics

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

That’s because viruses infect your body in a different way. Viruses infect your cells and multiply inside of them. For the virus, your cells act as a sort of “Trojan horse” so they can reproduce. Because they hide in your cells, antibiotics can’t affect viruses in the same way.

Antibiotics: Too much of a good thing

The fewer antibiotics we all take, the better — for ourselves and the whole planet.

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

Overuse of antibiotics also contributes to the rise of “super bugs,” or antibiotic resistant bacteria. So, avoiding antibiotics when possible is one way to promote good health globally.  

Prevention is the best medicine

Keeping yourself healthy during flu season starts with prevention.

“The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Policht. “The flu shot may not be 100 percent effective, but even if you do get sick after getting the vaccine, it’s likely that your illness won’t be as severe.”

Getting your flu shot is easier than ever for Geisinger patients. Get a walk-in flu shot during business hours at: 

To avoid longer wait times, you can schedule an appointment

Treatments for viral flu

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

If you have the flu and seek treatment early enough, in the first two days doctors can prescribe anti-viral medications to shorten the length of the sickness and limit its severity. If you’re diagnosed with the flu after that, over-the-counter medication can still help treat some symptoms.

Even without medication, viruses are “self-limiting,” meaning they’ll go away with or without treatment. Try some home remedies, too, like:

  • Rest: Sleep will help your immune system fight the illness.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids: Water, herbal tea with honey and lemon, broth and 100 percent juices can help you feel better and keep you hydrated.
  • Home remedies: Using menthol ointment, taking a hot bath, eating chicken soup and more of your tried-and-true cures for the common cold and flu can help relieve symptoms.

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

  • Young children
  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease

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

“You can do a few things to protect others from getting sick,” says Dr. Policht. “Stay at home, except to seek medical care, cover your cough and wash your hands often.”

Next steps: 

4 reasons to get your flu shot
4 flu season etiquette tips to keep you (and everyone else) healthy
Meet Tyler Policht, MD

man drinking hot tea with tissues

Protect yourself this flu season.

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