Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: Should you take antibiotics for a cold?

7 comments
Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. Photo / iStock
Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. Photo / iStock

Hi Sandra,
What is the difference between a viral and bacterial infection? Should I take antibiotics for my cold?
Anna, Thames.

Hi Anna,

Thank you for your question, so many people are confused by this. It is an important topic.

Most bacteria are beneficial for our health, however, there are some that are harmful. Bacterial infections are caused by some bacterial strains that live on the surface of our skin or can get into the body and cause health issues such as pneumonia, giardia or meningitis to name a few conditions. Antibiotics are often used in mainstream medicine to treat these bacterial infections (acute or chronic), and to stop them spreading.

Viruses from the Latin virus meaning toxin or poison are different from bacteria in that they have to enter into the cells of a person in order to reproduce, with the host's DNA or RNA.

As they invade healthy cells they begin to multiply, causing the person to become unwell. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. Common viral infections are colds and flu. There is no need to take antibiotics as it will not stop the illness or your symptoms, and will only add to the overuse of antibiotics.

Antibiotics work by either killing the bacteria directly or stopping its reproduction, without affecting our cells. Penicillin is a great example as it stops the bacterium's ability to make a cell wall so it cannot continue to live or reproduce, stopping the spread of infection.

The overuse of antibiotics in recent times has seen an increase in superbugs and antibiotic resistant infections. This is placing an extra burden on our health system and also our bodies. However, the good news is that plant medicine has proven to be incredibly useful in reducing both forms of infections. There are a variety of phytoconstituents derived from specific medicinal herbs that have been extensively studied for both their antiviral and antibacterial activity. A recent survey with German doctors revealed that 67 per cent of their prescriptions for upper respiratory tract infections were herbal medicines.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) was traditionally used for its antibacterial properties in snake bites and serious infections. It is now also scientifically proven to have immunomodulation and broad anti-viral effects against viral infections that affect the respiratory tract. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted over four months confirmed that a standardised form of echinacea supports immune resistance and acts directly against a variety of viruses. Another study confirmed that a fresh-plant echinacea preparation was equal to Tamiflu, the gold standard treatment of influenza with lower reports of complications in patients.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has been extensively used for its anti-microbial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Thyme has a demonstrated ability to fight bacteria, has been shown to be a good option for antibiotic resistance and is used in antibiotic resistant infections as an alternative or in combination with other therapies. Thyme also has great anti-viral properties, and its essential oil component has a proven ability against the herpes simplex virus.

Plantain (Plantago lanceolata and P.major) contains anti-viral components and assists cell mediated immunity modulation when taken regularly as a medicinal tea, making it an effective plant to include in your seasonal antiviral arsenal.

Often having a plant remedy that is specifically formulated to contain antiviral as well as antibacterial herbs will be enough to get you through the winter infection free. You can use an oral liquid preventatively once a day or more acutely if you feel unwell.

You DO need to be aware that some illnesses may appear as a cold but can actually be quite serious. For example, a sore throat is usually caused by a virus but strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection. This can be life threatening if left and you need to consult with your doctor for treatment if you are not getting better. Pneumonia also requires urgent medical attention, so please make sure you head to the doctor to check.

June is Men's Health Month, an international awareness month that aims to raise the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment. Supported by the not-for-profit Men's Health Trust, to help #MenStartTalking, the June columns will be focused on Men's Health.

- nzherald.co.nz

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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