Antibiotics use for colds 'rises 40%'

By Dominic Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News

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The proportion of patients given antibiotics for coughs and colds has risen 40% this century, a study found.

It comes despite government efforts to reduce prescriptions for antibiotics, which do not have any impact on common coughs and colds and work in only 10% of sore throat conditions.

The University College London and Public Health England study also found big variations between GP practices.

Researchers looked at more than 500 UK GP practices between 1999 and 2011.

'Dark ages'

They found the proportion of patients who were prescribed an antibiotic by their GP for coughs and colds was 36% in 1999, but rose to 51% by 2011 - a rise of 40%.

Publication of the study in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy comes after Prime Minister David Cameron last month warned the world could be "cast back into the dark ages of medicine" unless action is taken on the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics.

The Department of Health first made recommendations on limiting the prescription of antibiotics in 1998, including not prescribing them for simple coughs and colds and viral sore throats.

The data from 2011 also showed that among those patients receiving an antibiotic, over 30% received a drug that was not recommended in national guidance.

And researchers noted high levels of antibiotic prescribing for ear infections in some places. Some 10% of GP practices prescribed antibiotics to at least 97% of patients who complained of problems.

Prof Jeremy Hawker, a consultant epidemiologist from Public Health England, said: "Although it would be inappropriate to say that all cases of coughs and colds or sore throats did not need antibiotics, our study strongly suggests that there is a need to make improvements in antibiotic prescribing."

Minor symptoms

Dr Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of GPs, added: "Antibiotics are very effective drugs, as long as they are used appropriately.

"But we have developed a worrying reliance on them and GPs face enormous pressure to prescribe them, even for minor symptoms which will get better on their own or can be treated effectively with other forms of medication.

"Our patients and the public need to be aware of the risks associated with inappropriate use of antibiotics and how to use them responsibly.

"This study reinforces the message that we issued recently for front-line health professionals to resist pressure from patients for unnecessary prescriptions and explore alternatives to them."

That is a message supported by Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England.

"Medical staff are on the front line in our fight against drug resistance but everybody must act now to stop it in its tracks, including patients who put pressure on GPs to prescribe antibiotics."

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