Antibiotics won’t cure the common cold

Olivia Ostrow and Janet Reynolds

QUOI Media

Colder weather is upon us again – and so is cold and flu season. Nearly two years into the fight against COVID-19, we welcome children returning to schools, daycare and sports. But with the loosening of restrictions and increased social contacts, we are also now seeing increased circulation of common seasonal respiratory viruses.

Kids are experiencing cough and cold symptoms including fever, congestion and sore throat due to other respiratory viruses co-circulating along with COVID-19. While an occasional cold is a typical part of childhood, illnesses today come with added stress, anxiety and challenges for families.

Cold and flu symptoms often mean time away from school, daycare and other activities, plus a trip for a COVID-19 test. That can also mean sleepless nights caring for a sick child while also navigating personal and work demands.

For many, these challenges don’t end with a negative COVID-19 test.

Often children continue to experience cold symptoms for days and sometimes weeks due to respiratory viruses. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may also be difficult to get in-person medical care for kids with these symptoms when needed.

Some parents are even waiting in long lines in the emergency department if they are not able to get their child seen in person by their health care provider. This can be a stressful experience for parents and children, and lead to longer wait times for those who really need emergency department care.

Some parents may ask their doctor for an antibiotic for their child with the hope that the antibiotic will quickly clear up the fever, cough and other symptoms their child is experiencing. Unfortunately, antibiotics only work for bacterial infections and do not help respiratory viruses. In fact, unnecessary prescriptions and use of antibiotics can be harmful to kids and can lead to unwanted side-effects, including stomach upset and diarrhea.

Importantly, if antibiotics are used unnecessarily, they may not work as well when they are really needed. 

The added complication of the pandemic is that children with any viral symptoms, such as an isolated cough, are being asked to stay home from school and other settings until their symptoms fully resolve. But antibiotics are not the answer.

Over-the-counter cough and cold syrups and medications also generally don’t work and are not safe for children five years of age and younger.

The reality is that we do not have a quick fix for cold and flu symptoms. Symptoms tend to go away on their own and get better with supportive treatments including lots of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications to manage fevers, aches and pains. 

As health care providers, we want kids’ cold symptoms to go away as quickly as possible too. It is is important to ensure that routine childhood vacciations are up to date and obtain a yearly flu shot if your child is six months of age or older. Despite these measures, experiencing an occasional respiratory virus is a normal part of childhood. The resolution of cold and flu symptoms often requires time and patience.

Do talk to your health care provider if you have concerns about your child’s symptoms in order to clarify their diagnosis and learn what you can do to help them feel better this cold and flu season.

Dr. Olivia Ostrow is a pediatric emergency physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, the Associate Director for the Centre for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety (CQuIPS) and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto. Dr. Janet Reynolds is a family physician in Calgary, Alberta, and Medical Director of Crowfoot Village Family Practice.