Though I'm unversed in science, I accept and understand that bacteria differ from viruses; so antibiotics don't help in viral infections. Regardless, because older family members still allege that antibiotics have mitigated their colds, can psychology explain their misbelief?

They claim that within a day of taking antibiotics, their ability to speak returns and their sore throats are soothed. I can attest to this improvement; they do feel better. I'm also unversed in psychology, but can some placebo effect (again, NOT the antibiotics themselves) truly contrive such genuine relief?

  • $\begingroup$ Short answer: yes, placebo effects even known to manifest themselves physiologically. For instance, you could potentially observe a decrease in fever as a result of a placebo. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2015 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @blz I never knew about such strength of the placebo effect! Glad I posed this question. $\endgroup$
    – user6479
    Mar 17, 2015 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ The placebo effect accounts for 60% of the efficacy of medications (and other interventions) generally. This is for all situations, both where a "real" medicine (with known benefits) is used and when an inert substance is used (or even a harmful substance). You have to factor in the 60% likelihood of someone having an improvement "no matter what" and then calculate whether the intervention added to that, did nothing, or made things worse. So it is a biased playing field: people naturally just get better, and there is nothing you can do about that! You can, however, sell it. Pet rock, anyone? $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    May 19, 2016 at 4:16

3 Answers 3


Placebo effect is not the only explanation, although it can be a large component.

To be clear: Neither of the explanations below are reasons to use antibiotics for infections not due to bacteria. They do illustrate anchoring. Just because we call a drug an antibiotic and first note its effects to be killing bacteria does not forbid that drug from having other effects.

Antibiotics are anti-inflammatory

Bacterial and viral infections both induce an innate immune response, which includes the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Antibiotics can provide symptomatic relief by inhibiting the release of those cytokines, decreasing inflammation.

Bacterial super infections

The risk of a bacterial infection jumps during and shorty after a viral infection. Children, for example, are more likely to get strep throat after the flu. If the patient is unaware of two infections, taking an antibiotic will appear to treat the viral infection. It is, in reality, treating the bacterial rider.

  • $\begingroup$ +1. Thanks. I never knew about these positive benefits until now; so I pose my original question but with a biological focus here if you're interested: biology.stackexchange.com/q/30541/4466 $\endgroup$
    – user6479
    Mar 18, 2015 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ There is a psychological component. Not all patients know the biology. $\endgroup$
    – mac389
    Mar 18, 2015 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @mc389 Thank you. Yes, I agree. I meant that I wish to know both the psychology and biology behind this phenomenon, and so question this on both sites. Does this help? Or did you mean something else? $\endgroup$
    – user6479
    Mar 18, 2015 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ Can you simultaneously post? Cross-post? $\endgroup$
    – mac389
    Mar 18, 2015 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ No, I don't think so; but my question on Bio differs because there I ask about concrete biological effects. My question doesn't necessarily involve biological changes. $\endgroup$
    – user6479
    Mar 18, 2015 at 19:52

They might also just be getting better. The immune system could fight off the cold shortly after the antibiotics are taken, and they are misattributing the causality of getting better to the drugs instead of the immune system. People are prone to make errors in causal judgment of this kind.


Pretty much, for the same reason you're told to use rubbing alcohol to clean open cuts/sores. When you have a quite exposed inflamed area (e.g., lesions in sore throat), viruses are not the only things that can attack or lead to more inflammation. Antibiotics may not solve the "virus" problem, but they lighten the load as far as handling all of the innumerable other things that will gladly (opportunistically) attack the weakened tissue. It's not uncommon for people to get "secondary infections" after fighting off the primary or first one(s).

However, due to fears of evolving resistant strains of bacteria from antibiotic use, antibiotics are generally restricted to prescription-only in the united states. It's sort of a, "You'll suffer more, but for the greater good" philosophy.


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