A medical researcher at The University of Auckland says antibiotics are still being overused for treating common colds in New Zealand, despite researching showing their ineffectiveness.
Associate Professor Bruce Arroll, from the School of Population Health in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, says his interest in researching antibiotics was sparked after his brother-in-law was prescribed antibiotics for a common cold.
“It’s long been thought that antibiotics are ineffective for viral infections, yet they continue to be prescribed. I wanted to take a close look at the research and find out whether antibiotics do have any benefit for people with colds.
“I want antibiotics to be around for my grandchildren. But if doctors prescribe antibiotics too often, then people will build up an immunity to them, and they won’t be able to use this medication when they really need it,” he says.
Dr Arroll completed an academic Cochrane Review of all the past research into the use of antibiotics for treating colds. Despite it being a subject of debate over the years, Dr Arroll found only nine studies on the effectiveness of antibiotics for treating the common cold.
After reviewing all the research, Dr Arroll confirmed that antibiotics are not effective against colds, except in cases of purulent rhinitis (when a cold includes phlegm build-up and coloured discharge from the nose) when antibiotics are actually effective.
“Antibiotics can help when people have purulent rhinitis. But that said, four out of five people would recover without treatment. So my recommendation would be for doctors to give delayed prescriptions in these cases, and encourage patients only to take antibiotics if they haven’t recovered in a few days,” he says.
Even though Pharmac has recommended that doctors only prescribe antibiotics when there is an infection, Dr Arroll says antibiotics are still over-prescribed.
“People shouldn’t be taking antibiotics unless it is absolutely necessary, otherwise their body will be immune to them if they need them later down the track,” he says.
Dr Arroll says people don’t seem to realise they will develop resistance to antibiotics, which can render them useless later on.
“Each individual builds up their own resistance to antibiotics. So it is up to each of us to resist the temptation to use antibiotics when we don’t need them. There does seem to be an increase in resistance to antibiotics, and we can’t let that continue if we want effective medication for treating bugs of the future,” he says.
Dr Arroll is now looking at using delayed prescribing to reduce antibiotic use in New Zealand. Patients will be given antibiotics in an envelope and asked to wait five days before using them. He says evidence from overseas indicates that delayed prescribing and education can reduce the use of antibiotics by patients.