Ok so the title is a bit of a lie, they do work but they shouldn't be used as indisciminantly as they are. Why has it been so long I hear all my great followers (Robyn) cry? Well I've been busy and I've been ill.
Now this wasn't some little case of man flu with sniffles, this was great swathes of yellow mucous, coughing, fever and muscle pains. So what did I do? Run off to get antibiotics? Screw that I knocked back good old fashioned over the counter painkillers and waited it out.
Now why would I pass up a chance to take these miraculous anti biotics? Well it was a combination of I hate taking the things and that my illness was primarily viral so antibiotics will have no effect. There might have been a certain placebo effect but all I would be doing it wiping out those nice commensal bacteria in my gut making secndary infection more likely and giving me a rather upset stomach.
And why is that so bad? Well vancomycin for example can damage your kidneys quite nicely. There's also the fact you're actively pushing the evolution of bacteria who, let's face it are sneaky little genetic sponges. If a bacterium can find a gene that gives it partial resistance to an antibiotic lying around in its environment it will soak it up and try to use it, likewise if it completes a gene that frisky bacterium can pass the gene onto its cohorts or just divide rapidly in the space its less resistant cohorts once occupied. And that is the simple story of how MRSA and VRE came about. There's a much longer version involving selective environments, pili, raunchy bacterial sex and the like but what it comes down to is over use of antibiotics is selecting for an antibiotic resistant world.
Sadly some people still see them as the cure all when they're feeling lousy as they "know" antibiotics make them better which brings the placebo effect to light. Would people respond just as well to an over the counter drug with a long name that was essentially a sugar, caffeine and salt pill if there was a big enough marketing campaign telling them it worked? Possibly, the placebo effect is very strange.
So how can I sum this up? If you're tired, ill and achey then normal non steroidal anti inflammatories such as ibuprofen and a cup of hot, sweet tea will often do the job. Just rest up safe in the knowledge that you feel so crap because your immune system is going all out dealing with whatever the cause of the infection is.