How to cope with winter illnesses and why it’s a good thing if your Doctor says you don’t need an antibiotic

We are all worrying a little bit more this year about the kids getting sick. As well as COVID-19, viruses like croup RSV tend to be commonplace around autumn and winter. It can be hard to know how to mind everybody. We asked Dr Nuala O’Connor for her advice about managing illnesses this winter.

The most important thing to do if your child is unwell is to keep them home from school or crèche to stop infections including COVID-19 spreading in our communities.

Most common illnesses are caused by viral infections and do not require an antibiotic. Our bodies can fight off these infections without antibiotics. Young children may get 6-7 viral infections each year mainly in the autumn and winter months. The good news is that there is lots of information available to help you cope with common illnesses this winter.

For information on how to protect your child from COVID-19, including when they should stay home from school, click here. For other common winter illnesses, check out the HSE website and where you’ll find lots of helpful information about everyday illnesses like colds, coughs, croup, flu, earache and sore throats and how your own immune system is enough to help you get better.

Vaccination is a great way to protect your child from certain infections. This is the time of year when flu starts to circulate and children are twice as likely as adults to catch the flu, which can sometimes cause serious illness.  The good news is that all children aged 2 to 17 can now get their free, nasal spray flu vaccine. It’s a safe and effective way to protect them, and the rest of your family too. You can make an appointment with your GP or a local participating Pharmacist. You can find out more at

Everyone aged 12 and over can get a free COVID-19 vaccine too. 65% of 12-15 year olds and 77% of 15-17 year olds are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. You can register your child for this and find more information here.

Antibiotics do not treat common viruses including the flu, COVID-19 or colds. Taking antibiotics when you do not need them can cause you unnecessary harm. About one in five people who take antibiotics develop side effects, such as a rash, upset stomach or diarrhoea. 

If we have an infection caused by bacteria like pneumonia or a kidney infection we need antibiotics so we can accept the minor side effects that go with them.  However if we have an infection caused by a virus, like coughs, colds, flus and sore throats, we might get side effects but for zero benefit because antibiotics don’t treat viral illness.

Antibiotics will not relieve pain or a fever – for this, you will need to take paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Antibiotics will not ease a cough unless the cough is from pneumonia, which thankfully is uncommon. If you are unsure, you can talk to your pharmacist for cough medicines or try warm honey and lemon drinks. Remember that honey is not suitable for child under 1 year of age. You can cough for up to 3 weeks after a viral infection.

Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them means that they might not work for you when you do need them. Antibiotics have been overused in recent years and bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. This means that some common antibiotics no longer work as well as they used to and that some of them don't work for certain infections anymore. Also, some bacteria have changed. This means some antibiotics that were used to treat them no longer work very well.

We need to use antibiotics in the right way to slow down antibiotic resistance. This will help them remain effective for us and our children.

You can help prevent antibiotic resistance by:

  • not asking for antibiotics to treat viral infections, including COVID-19, colds and flu

  • taking antibiotic doses as prescribed and only when you need them

  • cleaning your hands regularly before and after preparing or eating food

  • knowing how to treat and recover from common viral illnesses

You can find more information about everyday illnesses like colds, coughs, flu, earaches and sore throats don’t need an antibiotic on the HSE website and