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Everyone has germs in their bodies called bacteria and viruses. There are “good bacteria” that help keep us healthy, but viruses usually make us sick.

Antibiotics are powerful medications that can fight infections and save lives by killing bacteria in your body. While antibiotics can help cure your bacterial infections, they won’t help you fight a virus like a cold or the flu – and taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can have serious consequences.

The good news? If you know the difference between bacteria and viruses – and when it’s appropriate to take antibiotics – you can fight infections properly and feel better the healthy way.

How Antibiotics Work – And How They Don’t

  • Antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria germs and can only treat sickness that is caused by bacteria, also known as a bacterial infection. This includes strep throat, urinary tract infections (UTI) and many skin infections.
  • Antibiotics don’t work on sickness caused by virus germs, also known as a viral infection. This includes most flu and common cold symptoms, such as sore throats, sinus infections, chest colds and bronchitis.
  • If you take an antibiotic when you don’t need it – for example, when you have a cold or the flu – it can make you feel worse and make your illness last longer. In fact, when used the wrong way, antibiotics can cause more severe illnesses like diarrhea, nausea and rashes.
  • Taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can also make your body resistant to antibiotics – meaning the next time you really need antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection, they may not work as well to cure you.

Learn more about bacteria, viruses and antibiotics.


Antibiotics and the Flu

The flu is a common respiratory illness caused by an influenza virus. It’s highly contagious and normally spreads through the coughs and sneezes of an infected person.

A common mistake is trying to take antibiotics for the flu, which is a viral infection.

Since antibiotics can only treat sicknesses caused by bacteria, they won’t help you feel better if you have flu symptoms. In fact, in many cases, taking antibiotics for the flu can make you sicker or make your sickness last longer.

Experts agree that the best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated every year. You should also make sure to cover your sneeze or cough, and wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand gel. (Want more ways to protect yourself? Check out our 14 tips proven to help prevent the flu.

If you do get sick with a fever and flu-like symptoms, stay home until your symptoms go away – and encourage others to do the same. If your symptoms become severe, make sure to see your doctor or use one of our online or walk-in options for care.

Good Germs vs. Bad Germs


Everyone has germs in their bodies called bacteria and viruses. There are “good bacteria” that help keep us healthy, and viruses usually make us sick. Watch to see what happens to these germs when we take too many antibiotics.


Use Antibiotics the Right Way

Data show that at least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices, emergency departments and hospital clinics are unnecessary. Here’s how you can help stop antiobiotic misuse:


  • Prevent infections by washing your hands often with warm, soapy water.
  • Stay up-to-date on recommended vaccinations that help prevent the spread of illnesses.
  • When seeing your doctor, ask if your illness is caused by a virus or bacteria. Understand that antibiotics don’t work to treat illness caused by a virus.
  • If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, you could ask: “What bacteria are you trying to kill?” or, “Is there a home remedy I can try before taking an antibiotic?”
  • Take antibiotics exactly how they are prescribed. Do not miss doses, and complete all of the cycle, even if you start feeling better.
  • If you have questions about your symptoms or about your antibiotics, speak with your doctor.


  • Ask for antibiotics when your doctor thinks you don’t need them. Remember antibiotics can have negative side effects if you take them when you don’t need them.
  • Share antibiotics or take someone else's antibiotics. Antibiotics are used for a specific type of infection, so taking the wrong antibiotic may keep you sick longer or allow bad bacteria to grow.
  • Save antibiotics for the next illness or take leftover antibiotics. Discard any leftover antibiotics once the course has ended.

Home Remedy or Antibiotics?

While a virus that causes cold or flu symptoms can be fought off by your immune system, if your symptoms last 10 days, you may need stronger treatment that your doctor can prescribe. Learn more about the difference between bacteria and viruses, and when it’s best to seek medical care.


Using Antibiotics Responsibly: Our Commitment

At Atrium Health, we spread antibiotic education to our doctors through our Antimicrobial Support Network and collaborative, which work with doctors to make sure patients are prescribed the most appropriate antibiotics. The ultimate goal is to improve your care and safety. Learn more about how we're doing it.