Don’t take antibiotics for a cough, say health experts

If you get a cough this winter, honey and over-the-counter remedies should be the first things you use to treat it rather than antibiotics, say health experts from Public Health England (PHE) and the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

In most cases, acute coughs are caused by a cold or flu virus or bronchitis, and usually last around three weeks.

According to the experts, honey and cough medicines containing pelargonium, guaifenesin or dextromethorphan have some evidence of benefit for the relief of cough symptoms. Doctors are also being advised not to offer antibiotics when patients have a cough, as they make little difference to the symptoms.

“If someone has a runny nose, sore throat and cough we would expect the cough to settle over two to three weeks, and antibiotics are not needed,” says Dr Tessa Lewis, GP and chair of the NICE antimicrobial prescribing guideline group.

Fighting antibiotic resistance

The draft guidance about treating coughs has been issued in an attempt to reduce antibiotic prescriptions and stem the problem of antibiotic resistance, which can lead to antibiotics becoming less effective.

“Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem and we need to take action now to reduce antibiotic use,” explains Dr Susan Hopkins, healthcare-associated infection and antimicrobial resistance deputy director at PHE.

“Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them puts you and your family at risk of developing infections which in turn cannot be easily treated. These new guidelines will support GPs to reduce antibiotic prescriptions and we encourage patients to take their GPs’ advice about self-care.”

Advice from the NHS on self-care for a cough explains there’s usually no need to see your GP. Instead, you should rest, drink plenty of fluids and drink hot lemon with honey (not suitable for babies). You should also speak to your pharmacist if you have a cough, as they can give you advice or suggest treatments to help you cough less, such as cough syrups and lozenges. Always speak to your pharmacist if you’re treating a child, as some cough medicines shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 12.

Should you see your GP?

If your cough persists for longer than three weeks, speak to your GP, says PHE and NICE, as an antibiotic may be necessary if you’re otherwise unwell or you’re at risk of further complications (this includes people with a pre-existing condition such as lung disease, a weakened immune system or cystic fibrosis).

The NHS also offers the following information on signs that you need help from your doctor:

  • If you have a cough that’s very bad or quickly gets worse (if you can’t stop coughing, for instance, or you have a hacking cough)
  • If you have chest pain
  • If you’re losing weight for no reason
  • If you have swollen glands in the side of your neck
  • If you find it hard to breathe

Meanwhile if you start coughing up blood, see a GP urgently.

If you have any questions about over-the-counter cough medicines or the signs you should look out for that suggest you may need antibiotics, you can have a word with your local Careway pharmacist without an appointment.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.