Make sure antibiotics work when you really need them

An estimated 5,000 deaths are caused each year in England because antibiotics no longer work for some infections, says Public Health England (PHE).

And that figure is set to rise, with experts predicting that in just over 30 years antibiotic resistance will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.

A PHE report also shows that as antibiotic resistance grows, the options for treatment become fewer. This, it claims, has led to commonly used antibiotics in hospital currently not working for four out of 10 patients with an E.coli infection in England.

Antibiotic resistance happens when the bacteria that cause infections change in response to the use of antibiotic medicines. This means an infection may be harder to treat if it’s caused by resistant bacteria. Indeed, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today, says the World Health Organization.

Important campaign message

PHE’s new campaign – called Keep Antibiotics Working – warns that taking antibiotics when they aren’t needed can put you at risk of having a more severe or longer infection. Antibiotics are essential to treat serious bacterial infections such as meningitis, pneumonia and sepsis, it explains. But they are also being frequently used unnecessarily to treat illnesses that can get better by themselves, such as coughs, earache and sore throats.

“Antibiotic resistance is not a distant threat, but is in fact one of the most dangerous global crises facing the modern world today,” says Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England.

“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 with antibiotics. Without urgent action from all of us, common infections, minor injuries and routine operations will become much riskier.”

So what can you do to make sure antibiotics will work for you if you were to really need them? Always trust your doctor, nurse or pharmacist’s advice as to when you need antibiotics, says PHE. And if you are prescribed antibiotics, always take them as instructed – never save them to use them another time or share them with anybody else.

“As an infectious diseases doctor. I see first hand what happens if antibiotics don’t work – and it’s scary,” says Dr Chris Van Tulleken from University College London Hospitals.

“Antibiotics are not just vital for treating serious bacterial infections, they’re needed to help with other treatments such as chemotherapy. Antibiotic resistance is a problem that will affect every one of us, so we all have a role to play.”

GPs are often asked to prescribe antibiotics by patients who think that they will cure all their ills, adds Dr Tulleken. “But the reality is that antibiotics are not always needed, so you shouldn’t expect to be prescribed them by your doctor or nurse,” he says. “Always take their advice and remember that your pharmacist can recommend medicines to help with your symptoms or pain.”

The next time you have a mild viral infection such as a cold, sore throat, earache or cough, ask your local Careway pharmacist for advice on how to soothe your symptoms with over-the-counter medicines.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.