The cold and flu season is well and truly upon us, and the sound of people coughing and sneezing is now just a normal part of the soundtrack to every day. Something else that many people have come to think of as synonymous with the cold and flu season is getting antibiotics from their GP to help their cough or sore throat clear up quickly.
But gradually the message is getting through to healthcare professionals and the public that overuse of antibiotics is dangerous, not just for our own health but for everyone else’s too.
In fact, bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics is one of the biggest healthcare threats we face today. This is due to bacteria evolving to survive the effects of antibiotics, making them ineffective. This resistance is largely due to antibiotics being overused.
Antibiotics becoming less effective means more deaths and more complications for people receiving treatment in hospital. When antibiotics fail to work, treatable infections like pneumonia or urinary tract infections, and even simple injuries, will kill once again, just as they did in the pre-antibiotic era. Drug resistant bacteria could also make cancer chemotherapy and routine operations like caesareans, appendix removal and hip replacements, life-threatening.
In Scotland, the Scottish Antimicrobial Prescribing Group (SAPG), part of Healthcare Improvement Scotland, has been working with NHS boards in hospitals and the community since 2008 to improve the use of antibiotics. About 80 per cent of antibiotic use in humans is in the community, so tackling unnecessary antibiotic use for common infections like coughs and colds – that do not usually require antibiotic treatment – continues to be a priority.
Our efforts have paid off: antibiotic use in primary care has decreased by 10.2 per cent between 2014 and 2018, and is now at the lowest rate since data became available in 1993. However, there is room for further improvement as rates of antibiotic use are still much higher than in some northern European countries.
If you consult your GP, or other healthcare provider, with symptoms of an infection they may decide that your symptoms will resolve themselves with self-care – rest, fluids and paracetamol or ibuprofen.
When antibiotics are required, they will prescribe them following local guidelines. It is important that you or your child always take them as directed – the right amount, at the right time, for the right duration. Never save them for future use or share them with others, and remember to return any unused antibiotics to your local community pharmacy for safe disposal.
All of us have an important role to play in preserving antibiotics for ourselves, others and for future generations. Patients and the public need to have a better understanding of when they do and do not require an antibiotic to help manage their expectations of receiving them. Information for patients and the public about self-care of common infections, the importance of recognising warning signs of more serious infections and actions to take is available in health centres and community pharmacies.
There is also useful information on the NHS Inform website and you may have already seen the ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’ campaigns across various healthcare and community settings. You may also notice the NHS-Scotland campaign “Be Health-Wise this Winter”.
If your child is crying with earache, your partner is complaining of a sore throat or you are feeling dreadful with the flu, try to remember that symptom relief is usually the best course of action.
The inappropriate use of antibiotics could have a huge potential cost for future generations and we’ll only tackle antibiotic resistance by everyone playing their part.
Dr Jacqueline Sneddon is an antimicrobial pharmacist and project lead for the Scottish Antimicrobial Prescribing Group.
For more information: https://www.sapg.scot/