U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-.

Cover of InformedHealth.org

InformedHealth.org [Internet].

Show details

Common colds: Research summaries – Should you take antibiotics if you have a cold?

Last Update: December 11, 2023; Next update: 2026.

It doesn't make sense to use antibiotics in the treatment of simple common colds: They don’t relieve symptoms like a stuffy nose and sore throat or make the cold go away any faster, but they often cause various side effects.

Simple common colds – with symptoms such as coughing, a stuffy nose and sometimes a mild fever – are usually caused by viruses. They almost always go away on their own within about two weeks, and often start to get better after just a few days.

Because antibiotics only fight bacteria, and not viruses, they're ineffective against colds caused by viruses. If a cold leads to a bacterial infection, it may be a good idea to use antibiotics. That is why they are sometimes prescribed as a preventive measure. But because colds almost always clear up on their own without any serious problems, and antibiotics often cause side effects, the pros and cons of using antibiotics need to be carefully considered.

Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration – an international research network – specifically looked for studies in this area. They found a total of eleven studies involving nearly 2,000 adults, teenagers and children with a simple cold who were generally otherwise healthy.

Poor outcome for antibiotics used in simple common colds

The studies showed that antibiotics have no benefits in the treatment of simple common colds. Regardless of whether they had taken antibiotics or not, the participants’ colds lasted a similar amount of time. But about 1 out of 10 people who took antibiotics had side effects – usually diarrhea, nausea and other stomach or bowel problems. Other common side effects of antibiotics include skin rashes and, in women, vaginal thrush.

The researchers concluded that there's no good reason for the wide use of antibiotics in the treatment of simple common colds. Antibiotics should only be considered as a treatment option if a bacterial infection has developed as a result of the cold. But this only happens very rarely.

There is also another good reason for being cautious with antibiotics: Using them too much to treat minor illnesses can make bacteria resistant (unresponsive) to the antibiotics over time. The antibiotics may then no longer be effective in the treatment of more serious infections.


  • Kenealy T, Arroll B. Antibiotics for the common cold and acute purulent rhinitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (6): CD000247. [PMC free article: PMC7044720] [PubMed: 23733381]
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
Bookshelf ID: NBK279540


  • PubReader
  • Print View
  • Cite this Page
  • Disable Glossary Links

Informed Health Links

Related information

  • PMC
    PubMed Central citations
  • PubMed
    Links to PubMed

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...