Staying well without antibiotics

Winter is the peak time for coughs and colds but there’s often no point rushing to get antibiotics to help. The majority of coughs and colds are caused by viral, not bacterial, infections - antibiotics do not work against viruses.

There are many ways that you can easily – and safely – treat your cough and cold with self-care, using a range of over-the-counter remedies stocked by your pharmacist, as well as with common sense, rest and recuperation. Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce pain associated with a cough and accompanying symptoms including sore throat, fever or aches and pains. 

Winter 2016 - antibiotics

Coughs in adults

If you do have a cough, it may be dry (a tickle in the throat or chest with no phlegm production) or chesty/productive (when you cough, you bring up mucous or phlegm.) Ask your pharmacist about which type of linctus or cough syrup would be best for you. There are also various decongestants which you can use to ease symptoms – again ask your pharmacist for advice. 


If you have a cough and you are a smoker, a priority should be to stop. Smoking is one of the most common reasons for a chronic cough. By stopping or reducing, the cough will be improved and you will also benefit your overall health. 

It might sound like unusual advice but try not to cough. Sometimes it is possible to cough less often as the desire to cough is often influenced by the brain and you may think you need to cough when you don’t. 

Sucking a boiled sweet or a lozenge can also help to ease cough symptoms.

It is essential to keep up your fluid intake, try to drink 6 to 9 glasses of water a day.

For further information about self-care, see our self-care and prevention pages.

When to seek medical advice

If your cough is persistent or if you start to cough up blood or your phlegm is coloured (i.e. pink or rust) you should seek medical advice. You should also seek advice if you:

  • have chest or shoulder pain
  • there is no sign of improvement in your cough after 3 to 4 weeks
  • have changes in your voice lasting for more than 3 weeks
  • are suffering from breathlessness
  • are wheezing or have an unexplained weight loss.

Coughs and fever in children

Check with your pharmacist about the different types of medication for chesty or tickly coughs in children.

Fever in a child is a raised body temperature of over 38°C. Your child will feel hotter than usual. Normally fever gets better by itself – it is usually an indication of an underlying infection and it is a natural response to help the body fight that infection. In children aged between 4 weeks and 5 years, you can use an electronic or chemical dot thermometer in the child’s armpit or an infra-red ear thermometer in the ear canal to check temperature. Use your judgement if you do not have a thermometer to check whether your child is abnormally hot.

Ask your pharmacist for advice about suitable medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, which can help with fever and temperature. They will also be able to give you safe guidelines about dosage.

NHS Choices has lots of information about what to do when your child has a fever. This includes information about when to seek urgent medical advice and how to treat a fever at home.

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