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Bacterial Infection vs. Virus: Do I Need an Antibiotic?

Bacterial Infections

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. Some surgeons prescribe antibiotics to people before or after surgery to help prevent a bacterial infection.

Antibiotics are prescribed by a doctor and you can only get them from a pharmacist at the pharmacy counter. Using antibiotics when they are not needed can cause harmful side effects and make antibiotics less powerful against some bacteria.

If your health care provider prescribes an antibiotic for you, follow his/her instructions on how and when to take it. Always finish all of the antibiotics unless your health care provider tells you otherwise.

Do not take other people’s antibiotics or old antibiotics.

Also do not share your antibiotics with anyone. They were prescribed to treat your illness, not someone else’s.


A virus is an illness that does not involve a bacterial infection.

Antibiotics do not cure viruses.

However, your health care provider can suggest over-the-counter medications (medications that you do not have to get from the pharmacist) that may help you feel better.


Over-the-Counter Medications for Symptom Control

Here are some common symptoms that you may have with a virus and some over-the-counter medications that you can buy to help you control your symptoms. Read the directions in
or on the packaging to make sure you are taking the medication correctly.

Ask your doctor about over-the-counter medications that are right for you, particularly if you are pregnant or are taking medications for a chronic health condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Runny Nose

  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • Nyquil or Unisom (doxylamine)
  • TheraFlu (pheniramine)
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine)
  • Allegra (fexofenadine)
  • Claritin (loratidine)

Productive (Wet or Chesty) Cough

  • Mucinex or Robitussin (guaifenesin)

Non-productive (Dry or Hacking) Cough

  • Delsym or Robitussin DM (dextromethorphan)


  • Inhaled: Afrin (oxymetazoline), Flonase (fluticasone), Nasacort (triamcinolone acetonide)
  • By Mouth: Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), Sudafed-PE (phenylephrine)

Sore throat

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Advil (ibuprofen)
  • Aleve (naproxen)
  • Chloraseptic throat spray
  • Cepacol lozenges or throat spray (benzocaine)

Many of these over-the-counter medications are available for purchase in their generic form in the WakeMed Outpatient Pharmacy located at the Raleigh Campus. WakeMed’s prices are lower than most other locations where these generic medications are sold.

Closeup of sick boy in pyjamas sneezing into a tissue, health, cold and flu concept

WakeMed Outpatient Pharmacy Hours

  • Monday through Friday, 7 am to 7 pm
  • Saturday, 8 am to 4 pm
  • Closed Sunday

Wash Your Hands!

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to keep yourself and your family healthy. Use warm, soapy water or hand gel.

Keep Up with Vaccinations!!

Vaccinations help prevent infections that may require antibiotics and help prevent diseases from spreading.

This information was adapted from Krinsky DL, Ferreri SP, Hemstreet B, et al. (2015) Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs, 18th Edition, Washington, DC: American Pharmacists Association.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.