Q: Dear Dr. Mao,
Is it ever appropriate to take antibiotics for an especially bad cold or flu?
A: People often want to take antibiotics for colds, and many physicians will prescribe them—even though antibiotics have no effect on viruses. Many believe that when the mucus turns yellow, it means that a bacterial infection has occurred for which antibiotic treatment is indicated. However, viruses can also produce yellow mucus; even if bacteria have made a home in the excess mucus, they may be only innocent bystanders and produce no symptoms.
Colds, however, can be complicated by bacterial infections. In such cases, antibiotic treatment may be needed. Decongestants and other symptomatic treatments have not been shown to be dramatically helpful.
Always consult with your physician for an appropriate treatment.