Do you really need antibiotics for a winter illness?

With winter being the peak time for colds and flu, it’s also a good opportunity to remind ourselves that antibiotics aren’t effective at treating these and other viral infections.

According to a campaign by Public Health England (PHE), called Keep Antibiotics Working, despite this fact antibiotics are still frequently being used to treat illnesses such as coughs, earache and sore throats – all of which can get better by themselves.

PHE experts want to remind people about the risks of antibiotic resistance – where antibiotic medicines become ineffective at treating infections – and urge people to take advice about antibiotics from their doctor, nurse or healthcare professional.

A PHE report called the English Surveillance Programme for Antimicrobial Utilisation and Resistance (ESPAUR) has also recently been published to highlight the importance of keeping antibiotics working.

According to the report, more than three million operations and treatments including cesarean sections and hip replacements could become life-threatening without the availability of effective antibiotics. That’s because any infections caused by surgeries could double, putting people at risk of dangerous complications.

PHE experts also warn that cancer patients could also be more vulnerable if antibiotics stop working, since cancer and its treatment (chemotherapy) can make your immune system less effective at fighting infections. Antibiotics are critical to both prevent and treat infections in cancer patients, the experts suggest.

Infection treatment

“Antibiotics are an essential part of modern medicine, keeping people safe from infection when they are at their most vulnerable,” says PHE medical director, Professor Paul Cosford.

“It’s concerning that, in the not too distant future, we may see more cancer patients, mothers who’ve had caesareans and patients who’ve had other surgery facing life-threatening situations if antibiotics fail to ward off infections.

“We need to preserve antibiotics for when we really need them and we are calling on the public to join us in tackling antibiotic resistance by listening to your GP, pharmacist or nurse’s advice and only taking antibiotics when necessary. Taking antibiotics just in case may seem like a harmless act, but it can have grave consequences for you and your family’s health in future.”

Rising resistance

According to PHE, the threat of antibiotic resistance continues to grow, with antibiotic-resistant bloodstream infections rising by an estimated 35 per cent between 2013 and 2017. But despite this, PHE claims 38 per cent of people still expected an antibiotic from their doctor’s surgery, NHS walk-in centre or GP out-of-hours service for a cough, flu or a throat, ear, sinus or chest infection during 2017.

Taking antibiotics when they aren’t essential can encourage harmful bacteria that live inside you to become resistant. That means those antibiotics may not work when you really need them.

“The evidence is clear that without swift action to reduce infections, we are at risk of putting medicine back in the dark ages – to an age where common procedures we take for granted could become too dangerous to perform, and treatable conditions become life-threatening,” warns Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

“The UK has made great efforts in recent years to reduce prescribing rates of antibiotics, however, there continues to be a real need to preserve the drugs we have so that they remain effective for those who really need them and prevent infections emerging in the first place.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, says GPs are already doing an excellent job of reducing antibiotics prescriptions. “But we often come under considerable pressure from patients to prescribe them,” she explains.

“We need to get to a stage where antibiotics are not seen as a catch-all for every illness or a just-in-case backup option – and patients need to understand that if their doctor doesn’t prescribe antibiotics it’s because they genuinely believe they are not the most appropriate course of treatment.”

For information on the best treatments for minor illnesses such as coughs, colds, flu, sore throats and ear infections, speak to your local Careway pharmacist who can recommend effective over-the-counter remedies.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.