Immediate measures must be taken to curb unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics, said health experts after a new study found that antibiotic prescriptions for coughs and colds increased by around 40% from 1999 to 2011.
Thirty-six per cent of patients were prescribed antibiotics for coughs and colds in 1999 but by 2011 this figure had soared to 51%, study stated. This is despite the fact that the Government issued guidance in 1998 advising GPs not to suggest antibiotics for simple coughs and colds.
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The new study, by experts at Public Health England (PHE) and University College London, also found there was 'substantial variation' in prescribing among different GP surgeries. Researchers looked at more than 500 UK GP practices between 1999 and 2011 and found that some practices were twice as likely to provide a prescription for coughs and colds as those who dished out the fewest.
In 2011, the best performing practices were providing around 32% of patients antibiotics for coughs and colds compared to 65% in the worst performing GP surgeries. The research also found major variation in the proportion of female patients aged 16 to 74 who were given one type of antibiotics for urinary tract infections (UTIs).
During 2011, just 16% of these patients in some practices were prescribed a short course of trimethoprim for a UTI while 70% of those affected by the condition were given the drug in other parts of the country.
Lead author Professor Jeremy Hawker, a consultant epidemiologist at PHE, said that the extensive variation between practices showed significant scope to improve prescribing.
"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. Previous research has shown that only 10% of sore throats and 20% of acute sinusitis benefit from antibiotic treatment, but the prescription rates we found were much higher than this.
The worry is that patients who receive antibiotics when they are not needed run the risk of carrying antibiotic resistant bacteria in their gut. If these bacteria go on to cause an infection, antibiotics will then not work when the patient really does need them," Jeremy Hawker said.
The study was published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.