Coughs, Colds, Antibiotics & Pneumonia

A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It’s very common and usually clears up on its own within a week or two.

The main symptoms of a cold include:

  • A sore throat
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • A cough
  • A short period of fever during a cold / cough (usually no more than 3 days, very rarely up to 5 days)

More severe symptoms, including a high temperature (fever), headache and aching muscles can also occur, although these tend to be associated more with flu.


What to do if you have a cough or a cold?

  • The most effective way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids.
  • Colds can last up to two weeks and may end with a cough that brings up mucus.
  • Ask your pharmacist for advice! There are many over-the-counter remedies to ease the symptoms, such as paracetamol.
  • If the cold lasts more than three weeks, or you become breathless, have chest pains, or if you already have a chest complaint, see your GP.
  • You should only use antibiotics when it is appropriate to do so. We now know that most coughs and colds get better just as quickly without antibiotics.




Antibiotics are medications used to treat, and in some cases prevent, bacterial infections.

They can be used to treat relatively mild conditions such as acne as well as potentially life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia.

However, antibiotics often have no benefit for many other types of infection and using them unnecessarily would only increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, so they are not routinely used.


Using Antibiotics Correctly

  • All colds, most coughs and sore throats are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against viral infections.
  • Do not expect to be prescribed antibiotics by your GP.
  • Antibiotics should be taken as prescribed and the full course completed, never saved for later or shared with others.
  • Bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic. They become antibiotic resistant, which means that the antibiotic no longer kills the bacteria.
  • The more we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. Some bacteria that cause infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics.
  • By using antibiotics carefully, we can slow down the development of resistance.
  • If you forget to take a dose of your antibiotics, take that dose as soon as you remember and then continue to take your course of antibiotics as normal.
  • Accidentally taking one extra dose of your antibiotic is unlikely to cause you any serious harm. However, it will increase your chances of experiencing side effects such as pain in your stomach, diarrhoea and feeling or being sick.


Pneumonia is swelling (inflammation) of the tissue in one or both of your lungs. It’s usually caused by an infection. At the end of the breathing tubes in your lungs are clusters of tiny air sacs. If you have pneumonia, these tiny sacs become inflamed and swell up with fluid.

Terms such as bronchopneumonia, lobar pneumonia and double pneumonia are sometimes used, but refer to the same condition with the same causes and treatment.

Common symptoms of pneumonia You are likely to have a cough. This can be dry, or may produce thick mucus (phlegm) that is yellow, green, brownish or blood-stained.


Other common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing – your breathing may be rapid and shallow, and you may feel breathless, even when resting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • Sweating and shivering
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain in your chest – which gets worse when breathing or coughing

Less commonly, symptoms of pneumonia can include:

  • Coughing up blood (haemoptysis)
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in your joints and muscles
  • Feeling confused and disorientated, particularly in elderly people


What causes pneumonia?

The most common cause of pneumonia is a pneumococcal infection, caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. However, there are many different types of bacteria and viruses that can lead to pneumonia.

Good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle can help prevent pneumonia. Try to avoid smoking, as it damages your lungs and increases the chance of infection.

People at high risk of pneumonia should also be offered the pneumo jab and the flu jab.


When to see your GP

If you feel very unwell and experience any of the symptoms of pneumonia, see your GP. You may need a chest X-ray or further tests to confirm the diagnosis.

If you are experiencing severe symptoms – such as rapid breathing, chest pain or confusion – seek urgent medical attention.


How is pneumonia treated?

Mild cases of pneumonia can usually be treated at home with antibiotics, rest and fluids. People who are otherwise healthy will normally recover well. For people with other health conditions, pneumonia can sometimes be severe and may need to be treated in hospital.

This is because pneumonia can lead to complications, some of which can be fatal, depending on the health and age of the patient. These include:

  • Respiratory failure (when the lungs cannot take in enough oxygen) due to the air sacs filling with fluid
  • Lung abscesses
  • Blood poisoning (septicaemia)


Who is affected?

In the UK, pneumonia affects around 1 in 1000 adults each year. It is more common during autumn and winter. Pneumonia can affect people of any age, although it is more common and can be more serious in groups such as:

  • Babies, young children and elderly people
  • People who smoke
  • People with other health conditions, such as a lung condition or a weakened immune system

People in these groups are more likely to need hospital treatment.