PEI·Opinion

Sorry, there's no cure for the common cold: Opinion

The common cold makes us feel miserable — sore throat, sinus congestion, runny nose, sore or plugged ears, coughing — but please don't ask for antibiotics to fix it.

The great majority of colds run their course and disappear. On occasion, however, colds can get complicated

The only known cure for the common cold is time and rest. (Shutterstock)

The common cold makes us feel miserable — sore throat, sinus congestion, runny nose, sore or plugged ears, coughing — but please don't ask for antibiotics to fix it.

Despite all of the advances in medicine the old saying remains true: there is no cure for the common cold.

Many people believe antibiotics will help end or shorten a cold. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Infections come in different flavours, depending on what microscopic organism or bug is responsible. Two big groups of infection-causing organisms are viruses and bacteria.

Viruses and bacteria are very different. Bacteria are living, tiny, single cells that can replicate all on their own. Viruses aren't full cells. They require an actual cell (like your sinus or lung cells) to help them replicate and cause infection.

Antibiotic resistance is developing faster than we can come up with new antibiotics.— Dr. Laura O'Connor

Antibiotics are drugs that stop or kill bacteria only. They prevent the bacteria from replicating: for example, by poking holes in the bacterial cell wall. 

Here's the thing: colds are caused by viruses. 

The wrong tool

Viruses are so vastly different than bacteria that antibiotics do nothing to stop them or even slow them down. 

Think of a balloon and a bowling ball. If you want to destroy the balloon, you could use a sharp pin. But if you want to destroy the bowling ball, your pin is useless. It's the wrong tool for the job.

While there are some antiviral medications out there (examples are HIV treatment or cold sore medication), there are none that work on the many viruses that cause colds. 

When is a cold more than a cold?

The great majority of colds run their course and disappear. On occasion, however, colds can get complicated. 

When your ears and lungs are plugged up with the usual mucus that comes with a cold, the bacteria that hang around your body can sometimes take advantage of their changed environment, and cause an infection of their own.

Antibiotics should be reserved for bacterial infections. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Signs that you may have developed a bacterial infection include high fever or chills, or sudden new pain in one place (your ear, chest, or a sinus).

Green or yellow mucus from your nose or chest can be from a viral or bacterial infection (the green colour comes from your own immune cells, not the bug), but a big change in the colour or amount of mucus could mean trouble.

The timeline also matters. A cold should run from five to 10 days (though sometimes the cough hangs on for a few weeks) and you should be feeling gradually better toward the end. Starting to suddenly feel worse can be a bad sign.

You should only use antibiotics prescribed to you for a certain condition.— Dr. Laura O'Connor

No single symptom or sign will confirm you have a bacterial infection. But your doctor can look at the whole picture and decide how likely it is that you might need treatment for one with antibiotics.

For people with a known lung disease like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the lungs aren't normal. If you have a lung disease, check with your doctor for what to do when you get chest infection symptoms.

Saving our antibiotics

If you are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, you'll be prescribed antibiotics. It is very important to use them properly, as instructed by your doctor and pharmacist.

These drugs aren't fail-safe. Because bacteria are living organisms, they can mutate and adapt to become better at surviving a course of antibiotics. This phenomenon is called antibiotic resistance.

If you have a lung disease, check with your doctor for what to do when you get chest infection symptoms, says Dr. Laura O'Connor. (Shutterstock)

Antibiotic resistance is developing faster than we can come up with new antibiotics. It is a very real and difficult problem.

It is more likely to happen if antibiotics aren't taken at the right dose, or for the right length of time.

You should only use antibiotics prescribed to you for a certain condition. Not "leftover" ones, or ones prescribed to someone else. They may not be adequate to kill your infection, and could contribute to bacteria becoming antibiotic-resistant. 

And a final way we can fight against antibiotic resistance?  Not using them unnecessarily — like for the common cold.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Laura O'Connor is a family physician in Charlottetown.

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