Influenza (“the flu”) is a contagious upper respiratory illness that becomes most prevalent during the winter months of the year.

The illness can be a significant burden during this time, causing not only missed days of work and school, but also hospitalizations. For example, in the 2016–2017 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 30 million cases of flu in the United States. This led to more than 14 million doctors’ visits and 600,000 hospitalizations.

So what can you do to fight the flu once you have it? Can your doctor prescribe you antibiotics to treat it?

Antibiotics aren’t an effective way to treat the flu. Read on to learn why.

Antibiotics are drugs that are used to treat bacterial infections.

In the late 1800s, researchers began to observe that some chemicals were effective in treating infections. Then, in 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered that a fungus called Penicillium notatum had contaminated one of his plated cultures of bacteria. The fungus left a bacteria-free zone in the area where it grew.

This discovery would eventually lead to the development of penicillin, the first naturally occurring antibiotic to be produced.

Today, there are many types of antibiotics. They have different mechanisms of fighting bacteria, including:

  • stopping bacterial cells from properly growing their cell wall
  • inhibiting the production of proteins within the bacterial cell
  • hampering the synthesis of bacterial nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA
Bottom lineAntibiotics treat bacterial infections. They aren’t effective against viruses.

The flu is a viral illness that’s caused by the influenza virus.

It’s spread primarily through respiratory droplets that are generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you inhale these droplets, you may become infected.

The virus can also be spread if you come into contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, such as doorknobs and faucet handles. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, mouth, or nose, you may become infected.

The illness caused by a flu virus can range from mild to severe and includes symptoms such as:

Because flu is a viral illness, antibiotics won’t help to treat it.

In the past, you may have been prescribed antibiotics when you had the flu. However, this was probably because your doctor suspected that you’d developed a secondary bacterial infection.

Bottom lineThe flu is a viral illness, caused by the influenza virus. For this reason, antibiotics aren’t effective against it.

Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria adapt to become resistant to antibiotics. In some cases, bacteria can even become resistant to many antibiotics. This makes some infections extremely difficult to treat.

Resistance can occur when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same antibiotic. The bacteria begin to adapt and get stronger to resist the effects of the antibiotic and survive. When antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains develop, they can begin to spread and cause hard-to-treat infections.

This is why taking unnecessary antibiotics for a viral infection can do more harm than good. Doctors try to only prescribe antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection that requires treatment with these medications.

Bottom lineIt’s important that you don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily, because this can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance can make other illnesses harder to treat.

One of the possible complications from the flu is developing a secondary bacterial infection, including:

While an ear or sinus infection can be a mild complication, pneumonia is more serious and may require hospitalization.

If you develop a secondary bacterial infection as a complication from the flu, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat it.

Bottom lineInfrequently, you can develop a secondary bacterial infection while you have the flu. If this happens, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Even though antibiotics aren’t effective against the flu, there are antiviral medications that your doctor can prescribe within a certain time frame. If these drugs are started within two days of developing flu symptoms, they can help to make your symptoms less severe or shorten the duration of your illness.

Antiviral drugs that are available to treat flu include:

  • oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
  • zanamivir (Relenza)
  • peramivir (Rapivab)

These drugs work by preventing the virus from being properly released from an infected cell. This inhibition prevents newly formed virus particles from going on to infect healthy cells.

Although not an antiviral in the above sense, the seasonal flu vaccine is available every year and is the best way to prevent becoming ill with the flu.

Bottom lineUnlike antibiotics, antivirals can be effective against the flu if your illness is caught early. However, they’re aren’t usually necessary to get over the flu, and they don’t kill the influenza virus.

Outside of taking antiviral medications, the best way to recover from the flu is to let the infection run its course. The following things can help in your recovery:

  • Rest up. Be sure to get plenty of sleep. This will help your body to fight off the infection.
  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of liquids, such as water, warm broth, and juices. This helps to prevent becoming dehydrated.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with the body aches and pains that often occur when you have the flu.
Bottom lineThe flu usually needs to just run its course. You should rest, get plenty of fluids, and, if needed, take certain drugstore medicines to help manage your symptoms.

Every winter, infection with the influenza virus causes millions of cases of the flu. Because flu is a viral illness, antibiotics aren’t an effective means of treating it.

When started within the first couple days of illness, antiviral medications can be effective. They may lessen symptoms and decrease the time of illness. The seasonal influenza vaccine is also an effective means of preventing becoming ill with the flu.

If you develop a secondary bacterial infection as a complication of the flu, your doctor will prescribe the appropriate antibiotic to treat it.