Flu and antibiotics: 3 things you need to know

Anyone who’s had the flu can tell you how severe it can be and you’ll want to feel better as soon as possible. You might start thinking that taking antibiotics could help you, but is that actually the case?

WellTuned spoke to Dr. Suzanne Corrington, medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to find out what you need to know about antibiotics and the flu.

1. Antibiotics are designed to treat bacterial infections, not viruses like the flu.

Antibiotics won’t work on the flu virus because they’re designed to treat bacterial infections – like strep throat, urinary tract infections, etc. It’s influenza viruses that cause people to get sick with the flu each fall and winter, not a bacteria.

So how can you tell the difference between a viral and bacterial infection?

Dr. Corrington’s advice:

It’s important to contact your provider or consider telehealth options when you’re sick (especially if there’s concern about being contagious).

You should prepare a detailed history of the symptoms you’re experiencing. Many common illnesses share similar symptoms, but answering these questions for your provider will help them make a proper assessment for your best treatment option:

  • What are your symptoms and when did they start – how quickly did they appear?
  • Are others in your household or work place also sick?
  • Have you had a fever, a cough, GI issues, aches, rashes and so on?
  • Have you traveled lately or experienced any confusion?

2. Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed can actually do more harm than good.

Antibiotics can save lives when used properly. But when they’re used, they can also cause side effects and increase your chance of getting an infection later on that is resistant to antibiotics.

Dr. Corrington’s advice:

It can be unsafe to take an antibiotic when you don’t need it, so it’s important to take them only when and how your provider prescribes them. They can kill the healthy bacteria in your body and even cause adverse drug reactions, so it’s in your best interest to be clear with your provider about what you’re putting into your body and what symptoms you’re experiencing when you’re sick.

3. There isn’t just one virus that causes the flu or illnesses like the flu.

Antibiotics will not protect you or provide treatment if you get sick from any virus, including influenza viruses that cause seasonal flu. While the CDC says there are 4 types of influenza viruses, it’s types A and B that cause most illness during flu season, and these 2 types can also have “subtypes” or “lineages” that circulate as well.

So how can you protect yourself from the flu and treat it if you get sick?

Dr. Corrington’s advice:

Getting a flu shot every year is the best way to prevent the seasonal flu. It’s safe and prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. While it can’t completely protect you against every virus out there, it can lessen severe symptoms caused by viruses similar to ones used to make the flu vaccine.

If you do get sick with the flu, make sure you take care of yourself properly – starting by talking to your provider about your symptoms. They may prescribe you an anti-viral or other medications that could treat your symptoms.


Ali Whittier, CHES®

Ali joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2014 and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). A native of Iowa, she has more than a decade of experience in health promotion and community engagement, as well as health care communications. When she’s not at BlueCross, she and her husband Spencer are racing their bikes, spending time outdoors or cooking healthy food and treats in their kitchen.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.