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What kills bacterial infection?

Got Germs?

Everyone has germs in their bodies called bacteria and viruses. There are “good bacteria” that help keep us healthy, but viruses usually make us sick.

Antibiotics are powerful medications that can fight infections and save lives by killing bacteria in your body. While antibiotics can help cure your bacterial infections, they won’t help you fight a virus like a cold or the flu – and taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can have serious consequences.

The good news? If you know the difference between bacteria and viruses – and when it’s appropriate to take antibiotics – you can fight infections properly and feel better the healthy way.

How antibiotics work

  • Antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria germs and can only treat sickness caused by bacteria, also known as a bacterial infection. This includes strep throat, urinary tract infections (UTI) and many skin infections.
  • Antibiotics don’t work on sickness caused by virus germs, also known as a viral infection. This includes most flu and common cold symptoms, such as sore throats, sinus infections, chest colds and bronchitis.
  • If you take an antibiotic when you don’t need it – for example, when you have a cold or the flu – it can make you feel worse and make your illness last longer. In fact, when used the wrong way, antibiotics can cause more severe illnesses like diarrhea, nausea and rashes.
  • Taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can also make your body resistant to antibiotics – meaning the next time you really need antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection, they may not work as well to cure you.

Helpful resources

  • What You Need to Know About Antibiotics, Bacteria and VirusesAtrium Health’s Approach to Antibiotics
  • Guide to Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Dosage for Children and InfantsGuide to Ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) Dosage for Children and Infants

Antibiotics and the flu

The flu is a common respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It’s highly contagious and normally spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

A common mistake is trying to take antibiotics for the flu, which is a viral infection.

Since antibiotics can only treat sicknesses caused by bacteria, they won’t help you feel better if you have flu symptoms. In fact, in many cases, taking antibiotics for the flu can make you sicker or make your sickness last longer.

Experts agree that the best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated every year. You should also make sure to cover your sneeze or cough, and wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

If you do get sick with a fever and flu-like symptoms, stay home until your symptoms go away – and encourage others to do the same. If your symptoms become severe, make sure to see your doctor or use one of our online or walk-in options for care.

Good germs vs. bad germs

Everyone has germs in their bodies called bacteria and viruses. There are “good bacteria” that help keep us healthy, and viruses usually make us sick.

Watch to see what happens to these germs when we take too many antibiotics.

Use antibiotics the right way

Data show that at least 30% of antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices, emergency departments and hospital clinics are unnecessary. Here’s how you can help stop antibiotic misuse:


  • Prevent infections by washing your hands often with warm, soapy water.
  • Stay up to date on recommended vaccinations that help prevent the spread of illnesses.
  • When seeing your doctor, ask if your illness is caused by a virus or bacteria. Understand that antibiotics don’t work to treat illness caused by a virus.
  • If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, you could ask: “What bacteria are you trying to kill?” or, “Is there a home remedy I can try before taking an antibiotic?”
  • Take antibiotics exactly how they are prescribed. Do not miss doses, and complete all of the cycle, even if you start feeling better.
    If you have questions about your symptoms or your antibiotics, speak with your doctor.


  • Ask for antibiotics when your doctor thinks you don’t need them. Remember antibiotics can have negative side effects if you take them when you don’t need them.
  • Share antibiotics or take someone else’s antibiotics. Antibiotics are used for a specific type of infection, so taking the wrong antibiotic may keep you sick longer or allow bad bacteria to grow.
  • Save antibiotics for the next illness or take leftover antibiotics. Discard any leftover antibiotics once the course has ended.

Using antibiotics responsibly: Our commitment

At Atrium Health, we spread antibiotic education to our doctors through our Antimicrobial Support Network and patient care collaborative, which both work with doctors to make sure patients are prescribed the most appropriate antibiotics. The ultimate goal is to improve your care and safety.

Using viruses to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections

Illustration of phage infecting bacterium

Bacteria with resistance to multiple antibiotics are a growing problem worldwide. As a result, some types of infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat, especially in healthcare facilities and in people with weakened immune systems.

In addition to developing novel antibiotics, researchers have been exploring other ways to treat drug-resistant bacteria. One experimental technique is the use of bacteriophages, also called phages. Phages are viruses that infect only bacteria and so are harmless to people.

Previously, a team led by Dr. Graham Hatfull from the University of Pittsburgh engineered phages to be more efficient at killing bacterial cells. These were successfully used to treat a teenager with a life-threatening antibiotic-resistant infection after a lung transplant. The teen required drugs to suppress her immune system because of the transplant. This immunosuppression prevented her immune system from making antibodies that might have neutralized the phages before they killed the bacteria.

In a new case study, researchers led by Drs. Jerry Nick and Rebecca Davidson from National Jewish Health tested phage therapy in a 26-year-old man with advanced cystic fibrosis and a severe, multidrug-resistant Mycobacterium abscessus lung infection. Hatfull’s group screened a panel of phages for candidates that could kill the specific strain of M. abscessus infecting the patient.

The patient received twice-daily infusions of the engineered phages along with antibiotics. Results from the study, which was funded in part by NIH, were published on May 26, 2022, in Cell.

After about a year of phage therapy, there was no evidence of ongoing M. abscessus infection in cultured lung samples. By the eighth month of treatment, the patient’s immune system had recognized and produced antibodies capable of neutralizing one of the phages. However, the other remained active.

With his M. abscessus infection cleared, the patient underwent a successful lung transplant. The team found no evidence of M. abscessus in the removed lungs or in the new lungs several months after transplant. The patient remained on phage therapy at the time the results were published at 500 days of treatment. He has since been able to stop taking both antibiotics and phage.

In another study, an international team led by Hatfull provided phage therapy for compassionate use in 20 people with life-threatening antibiotic-resistant infections. Most of the patients had cystic fibrosis and M. abscessus infections. For 11 of them, only a single type of phage was found that could likely kill their specific bacteria. For the nine others, the researchers identified two or more potentially useful phages.

Researcher holding a plate of bacteria with several clear circles

A plate with a coat of bacteria has clear circles indicating where phages have effectively killed the bacteria. Aimee Obidzinski / University of Pittsburgh

The patients received their phages twice daily, either into a vein or inhaled. Results from this case series, which was also funded in part by NIH, were published on June 9, 2022, in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Of the 20 volunteers, five experienced total or substantial resolution of their infection. Of these, two were able to undergo lung transplantation. Another six patients had partial responses to phage therapy. Five additional patients either had short-lived or inconclusive improvements in infection. In four, there was no detected improvement in response to the phage therapy.

None of the patients experienced serious side effects from the treatment. Some of their immune systems generated antibodies against one or more of the phages. However, despite this immune reaction, the phage treatment appeared successful in most of these cases, even when only a single type of phage was used.

These studies highlight the potential of phage therapy as a method of personalized, precision treatment for severe antibiotic-resistant infections. More work is needed to optimize phage delivery and prevent the immune system from neutralizing the phages. Additional phages that can kill more types of bacteria are also required.

“We’ve not yet figured out how to find or engineer phages that will get every strain of bacteria in these patients,” Hatfull notes. “That represents one of the major challenges ahead.”

—by Sharon Reynolds

Related Links

  • Searching for New Antibiotics in the Human Body
  • Immune Boost Fights Antibiotic-Resistant Infections in Mice
  • Engineered Phages Treat Drug-Resistant Infection
  • How Cystic Fibrosis Promotes Lung Infections
  • Antibiotic Combinations May Combat MRSA Infections
  • Method Can Target Specific Microbes
  • Development of Antibiotics to Treat Tuberculosis
  • Stop the Spread of Superbugs
  • Antimicrobial (Drug) Resistance
  • Cystic Fibrosis

References: Host and pathogen response to bacteriophage engineered against Mycobacterium abscessus lung infection. Nick JA, Dedrick RM, Gray AL, Vladar EK, Smith BE, Freeman KG, Malcolm KC, Epperson LE, Hasan NA, Hendrix J, Callahan K, Walton K, Vestal B, Wheeler E, Rysavy NM, Poch K, Caceres S, Lovell VK, Hisert KB, de Moura VC, Chatterjee D, De P, Weakly N, Martiniano SL, Lynch DA, Daley CL, Strong M, Jia F, Hatfull GF, Davidson RM. Cell. 2022 May 26;185(11):1860-1874.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2022.04.024. Epub 2022 May 13. PMID: 35568033.

Phage Therapy of Mycobacterium Infections: Compassionate-use of Phages in Twenty Patients with Drug-Resistant Mycobacterial Disease. Dedrick RM, Smith BE, Cristinziano M, Freeman KG, Jacobs-Sera D, Belessis Y, Whitney Brown A, Cohen KA, Davidson RM, van Duin D, Gainey A, Garcia CB, Robert George CR, Haidar G, Ip W, Iredell J, Khatami A, Little JS, Malmivaara K, McMullan BJ, Michalik DE, Moscatelli A, Nick JA, Tupayachi Ortiz MG, Polenakovik HM, Robinson PD, Skurnik M, Solomon DA, Soothill J, Spencer H, Wark P, Worth A, Schooley RT, Benson CA, Hatfull GF. Clin Infect Dis. 2022 Jun 9:ciac453. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciac453. Online ahead of print. PMID: 35676823.

Funding: NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Fowler Fund for Phage Research; Colorado Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant Program; Burroughs Wellcome Fund; Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation; Mallory Smith Legacy Fund; UCSD Chancellor’s Fund; Stephen and Betty Thorp.

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