53% of people who contacted a doctor or nurse about a recent cough, cold, sore throat or flu expected to be prescribed antibiotics for their illness, according to a new survey.
And 25% believe that antibiotics work on most coughs and colds, according to the poll, which was conducted by the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
However, 70% of people interviewed by the Agency also said they recognised that antibiotic resistance is a problem in UK hospitals and a similar number acknowledged that resistance to antibiotics could affect them and their family.
"Health professionals need to learn to resist demands from patients for treatments they know have little or no effect on coughs and colds. Our research showed that 97% of those questioned said that they last time they asked their GP or nurse for an antibiotic, they were prescribed one," said Dr Cliodna McNulty, head of primary care at the HPA.
"Although the public recognises resistance as a problem, our findings show that people expect, and are often prescribed, antibiotics for mild illnesses such as coughs, colds and sore throats as well as for flu, which can be more severe but is still a viral illness," she added.
The survey also found that 10% of people admitted to keeping leftover antibiotics. "This is not good practice and health professionals need to stress to patients that self-treatment with leftover antibiotics is not only unsafe but can lead to the emergence of resistance," Dr McNulty went on.
To help improve public understanding, the HPA has published a list of "top 10 tips" about what patients should be aware of when they are suffering with cold and flu symptoms and think they need antibiotics. The list includes telling patients that, if they were given an antibiotic last time they had a respiratory tract infection, this time they should ask their doctor about a delayed antibiotic prescription, which is taken only if the symptoms get worse or do not get better within the time expected for that illness.
"That way, you will not be taking antibiotics unnecessarily, but if you do need them you can get them later," says the HPA advice.
Dr McNulty warned that while most bacterial infections are still susceptible to antibiotics, there are a number of bacteria which are developing resistance to the antibiotics that are available. "Preserving the continued efficacy of our precious antibiotics has to be a priority," she emphasised.
Commenting on the HPA survey findings, Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said: "antibiotics are a wonderful thing when used properly, but they are not a cure-all for every condition, and should not be seen, or used, as such."
"The opposite is often true and, when used excessively or inappropriately, they can actually do more harm than good - reducing a patient's immunity to illnesses or building up an immunity to antibiotics, both of which can have negative consequences for good health," said Dr Gerada.