Myth that antibiotics cure coughs and colds still rife

Antibiotics Antibiotics "will not cure viruses"

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A quarter of people wrongly believe antibiotics work on most coughs and colds, a Health Protection Agency survey has found.

However antibiotics cannot treat viruses, which cause most respiratory tract infections.

The HPA poll of 1,800 people in England also found one in 10 people keep leftover antibiotics - and many would self-medicate next time they got ill.

A leading GP said antibiotics were not a "cure all".

An expert in immunity and infection is also warning that the misuse of antibiotics, and drug companies' failures to develop new ones, could lead to a rise in untreatable infections.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that antimicrobial resistance "is one of the most serious public health challenges that we face in the EU" and could cost at least 1.5bn euros.

Speaking on European Antibiotics Awareness Day, the HPA's Dr Cliodna McNulty said self-medicating was unsafe and could fuel drug resistance.

Dr McNulty, head of primary care for the HPA, said: "The majority of people can treat themselves at home using over-the-counter medicines to relieve symptoms."

Of those polled, 500 had been prescribed antibiotics in the previous year, with 11% reporting they had leftovers and 6% saying they might take them if they had future infections.

Dr McNulty said that while the numbers might appear small, they could translate into large numbers given that 30% of people take antibiotics every year.

She said: "There is evidence that the more antibiotics you have, the more likely you are to develop resistance. And you're also more likely to develop antibiotic-related diarrhoea."

But 70% were aware of the problem of antibiotic resistance in hospitals, and a similar number were aware that they or their family could be affected.

'Not a cure-all'

The HPA says health professionals must learn to resist demands from patients for treatments they know have little or no effect on coughs and colds. It found 97% of those questioned said that the last time they had asked their GP or nurse for an antibiotic, they were prescribed one.


  • Most coughs and colds get better on their own - antibiotics will not speed recovery
  • Talk to your GP about whether you need them
  • Coughing up phlegm on its own is not a reason to need an antibiotic - even if it is yellow
  • A sore throat plus runny nose with phlegm suggests the infection is less likely to respond to antibiotics
  • A high temperature, red throat and feeling really ill means you probably need an antibiotic
  • If you feel able to stop taking them early, you may well not have needed them
  • Always take all doses for as long as instructed
  • Never keep any leftovers - what's prescribed for one infection might not work for the next
  • GPs can give a delayed antibiotic prescription for you to take only if things get worse
  • In cases of severe illness, antibiotics can save lives

Dr McNulty added: "Despite many years of public health campaigns advising people that antibiotics don't work against coughs, colds and flu, our research results show that these myths prevail.

"We understand people feel very unwell with coughs, sore throats, flu and colds, but for the majority of people these symptoms are unpleasant but short-lived."

The Department of Health issued fresh guidance on antibiotic prescribing in hospitals on Friday, with doctors and nurses being urged to "think twice" before offering them to patients.

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Antibiotics are a wonderful thing when used properly, but they are not a cure-all for every condition, and should not be seen, or used, as such.

"The opposite is often true and, when used excessively or inappropriately, they can actually do more harm than good - reducing a patient's immunity to illnesses, or building up an immunity to antibiotics, both of which can have negative consequences for good health."

Writing in The Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal, Prof Laura Piddock of the school of immunity and infection at the University of Birmingham warned there were global implications from the misuse of antibiotics, and drug companies' failures to develop new ones.

She warned: "The demise of antibacterial drug discovery brings the spectre of untreatable infections."

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimated, in 2009, that each year 25,000 Europeans die as a direct consequence of a multidrug-resistant infection.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    Bacteria: living organism. Virus: strand of DNA in a protein coat. Antibiotics: interfere with bacteria's ability to multiply. Problem with overuse of antibiotics/not taking for full period of time: bacteria with most resistance survive and multiply. Consequence: that antibiotic becomes ineffective as bacteria can exchange resistance genes. Why no cure for common cold: caused by a virus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    GPs have to manage this process better - antbiotics should only be prescribed by a Dr AFTER they have examined the patient. If GPs are dispensing them after a phone conversation or under pressure from an uninformed patient, then something is seriously wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Drs are now so reluctant to prescribe anti-biotics that everything is described as a virus, even when it is clearly not. my sone ended up in hospital with a bacterial infection because of a reluctance to treat his condition early

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    The reason for the problem is simple. The majority of people have such a poor grasp of science that they simply do not understand the difference between a virus and bacteria. Popular talk is about "bugs". If people knew the difference between a bacteria and a virus it would be a lot easier for them to understand which illnesses antibiotics were useful for, and which they are useless for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    We try to avoid antibiotics, our doctors are visibly relieved when we say we aren't looking for them. For viruses, what we are looking for is remedies, non pharmaceutical, and we aren't getting them. If things aren't tested by big Pharma, they aren't being recommended by NICE. Remedies won't cure, but can alleviate symptoms, but we aren't getting this advice, because it isn't 'proven'. Madness.


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