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Significant proportion of people still regularly takes antibiotics for coughs and colds

Public misconceptions about these drugs rife, PHE survey reveals

Caroline White

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Four in ten people have taken antibiotics for a cough or runny nose over the past year, despite both conditions normally clearing up without treatment, according to new research published today by Public Health England (PHE), to mark the annual European Antibiotic Awareness Day.

The survey of 1,625 adults in England assessed knowledge about, and attitudes towards antibiotics.

It found widespread misconceptions about antibiotics, which is contributing to their inappropriate use and helping to bolster the growing threat of treatment-resistant bacteria, says PHE.

For example, half of those questioned believe antibiotics weaken the immune system, while four in 10 believe antibiotics could be used to treat viral infections.

Over the past year, four in 10 people with a cough or cold symptoms, and six in 10 with a throat infection had taken antibiotics, despite these conditions usually clearing up by themselves without the need for antibiotics.

Some 17% of those questioned believed that antibiotics could be used as an anti-inflammatory; and 4% believed they can treat asthma, hay fever, and headaches.

More than one in 10 believed they can be used to treat allergic reactions while one in four (26%) think they can be used to treat fungal infections.

Furthermore, almost four in 10 15-24 year olds said they had taken antibiotics that were not prescribed for them compared with under one in 10 people over 25 years old.

This was either taking left-overs of their own or those belonging to other family members or friends, abroad, via the internet, or those that were prescribed for a different or previous infection.

“The misconception that antibiotics are a cure-all for all ills is proving to be a very difficult myth to shift,” commented Dr Cliodna McNulty, head of PHE’s primary care unit.

“Our survey results highlight the need for much greater awareness-raising as to what antibiotics are, and what conditions they can be used for. People also do not realise that we can all carry antibiotic resistant organisms and spread them to others very easily, just through our everyday activities and contacts,” she said.

This year, PHE has launched a new campaign called Antibiotic Guardian, which asks everyone to make a pledge to help preserve antibiotics.

This could be something like seeking advice from the chemist on self-care of symptoms or for a GP to use a back-up prescription for patients with a high expectation of receiving antibiotics, suggests PHE.

“Previous surveys have shown that GPs are a trusted source of advice, and we saw that in this survey as well. Given this level of confidence and trust we need to capitalise on it and support GPs to use back up prescriptions if there is any doubt as to whether someone has a bacterial or a viral infection. This will help to reduce the amount of antibiotics being prescribed and help to stop antibiotic resistance developing,” said Dr McNulty.

Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies added: “European Antibiotics Awareness Day is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness around the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. We need to preserve the antibiotics we have, otherwise we could see the end of modern medicine as we know it. This is about appropriate prescribing by GPs and patients being aware when antibiotics are really needed.”

Meanwhile, another survey of 2,000 members of the UK public, to mark the opening of the Longitude Prize, reveals that antibiotic resistance was ranked second only to a terrorist attack in terms of potential threats to the UK.

The survey also showed that nearly one in five see antibiotics no longer working as the greatest health threat to the UK, second only to cancer.

At the end of June, the British public voted for antibiotics to be the focus of the £10 million Longitude Prize. The race is now on to develop a revolutionary test to detect and understand infections to help ensure the right antibiotics are only used at the right time. 

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