Resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest threats to modern health, experts say.
The warning from England's chief medical officer and the Health Protection Agency comes amid reports of growing problems with resistant strains of bugs such as E. coli and gonorrhoea.
They said many antibiotics were being used unnecessarily for mild infections, helping to create resistance.
And they urged patients to take more care with how they used medicines.
This is particularly important as there are very few new antibiotics in development.
The chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, said: "Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible - similar to global warming.
"I urge patients and prescribers to think about the drugs they are requesting and dispensing.
"Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics, ultimately becoming resistant so they no longer work.
"The more you use an antibiotic, the more bacteria become resistant to it."
To reinforce her message, Dame Sally has issued a list of "dos and don'ts".
The HPA said the last point was one of the common misconceptions among the public.
Dr Cliodna McNulty from the HPA said: "We all seem to forget just how awful you can feel with a bad cold, let alone flu, and this maybe makes us think that we are more poorly than we really are and that we need antibiotics to get better.
"But this isn't the case and using your favourite over-the-counter medicines that can help to ease headaches, aching muscles and stop your nose running will make you feel a lot better."