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Got a cold or flu? Don't ask for antibiotics

Awareness day highlights the risks to tomorrow's treatments from today's antibiotic misuse
By
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
variety of pills

19th November 2012 - A publicity campaign's been launched to persuade people seeing their doctor with cold or flu symptoms not to ask for antibiotics.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) says a leaflet will urge patients to discuss with their doctors why they are not being prescribed antibiotics. It will remind patients that colds, most coughs, sinusitis, earache and sore throats usually get better without antibiotics and explain how these conditions are best treated.

The leaflet is being launched to coincide with the annual European Antibiotics Awareness Day which aims to raise awareness of the risks associated with the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics have been widely used in medicine over the last 70 years to treat bacterial infections. In recent years it has become apparent that widespread use has led to antibiotic resistance and the prospect that some once potent types of antibiotic will be rendered useless.

For instance, penicillin is no longer effective for staphylococcal wound infections, while the synthetic antibiotic ciprofloxacin is now powerless against gonorrhoea. The value of many more antibiotics are under threat.

Experts say that between the 1940s and 1990s the problem of resistance could be overcome by producing new types of antibiotics, but that the pharmaceutical industry is no longer geared up for that kind of eventuality. As a result, doctors now may have to fall back on 'reserve' antibiotics which may not be as effective or may have more side-effects.

Bacteria, not viruses

This year's awareness campaign aims to reinforce the message that antibiotics are effective at killing bacteria, not viruses. Viruses, which antibiotics do not affect, cause nine out of 10 sore throats and all cases of flu. So, the message is that prescribing antibiotics for people with colds and flu risks unnecessarily weakening their ability to work against infections when they are needed.

GPs under pressure

"When patients attend the surgery with a respiratory infection they still receive an antibiotic in around 70-80% of consultations," says Dr Michael Moore, a Salisbury GP and Reader in primary care research at the University of Southampton.

He tells us: "The precise rate depends on the labelling of the condition. It is around 90% for tonsillitis and chest infection compared to 50% for sore throats. We know from our work in delayed prescribing that by asking patients to wait a few days the pick up rate for antibiotics is reduced to around 30% with no change in recovery rates or satisfaction. So antibiotics are still ‘over used’ in this situation.

Dr Cliodna McNulty, the HPA’s lead on European Antibiotics Awareness Day says in a statement: "This expectation puts a lot of pressure on the doctor to prescribe antibiotics which is often not necessary and causes increased antimicrobial resistance in the long run. Bacteria will always adapt to try and survive the effects of the antibiotic and we have seen that the problem of resistance is growing.  

"GP patients who have had antibiotics in the last six months are twice as likely to have an infection with resistant bacteria. This is why it is very important that we preserve the antibiotics that we have by not prescribing them where they are not necessary so that they are effective when we really do need them."

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