Forty percent of people are taking antibiotics for coughs or runny noses unnecessarily, while 90% are unaware that drug-resistant bacteria can easily spread from person to person, a survey commissioned by Public Health England to mark European Antibiotic Awareness Day has uncovered.

Revealing huge gaps in public knowledge on antibiotics, 40% of respondents said they believe they can treat viral infections, 26% fungal infections, 4% asthma, 4% hay fever, and 17% think they can be used as anti-inflammatories. Half believe antibiotics weaken your immune system.

“The misconception that antibiotics are a cure-all for all ills is proving to be a very difficult myth to shift,” said Cliodna McNulty, head of PHE’s primary care unit, stressing that the results “highlight the need for much greater awarenessraising as to what antibiotics are, and what conditions they can be used for”.

Also worrying, nearly 40% of 15-24 year olds reported taking antibiotics that were not prescribed for them compared to under 10% of those over 25 years old, further contributing towards growing antimicrobial resistance.

Preserving the arsenal

“We need to preserve the antibiotics we have, otherwise we could see the end of modern medicine as we know it,” warned Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies. “This is about appropriate prescribing by GPs and patients being aware when antibiotics are really needed,” she said, and noted that European Antibiotic Awareness Day (November 18) is “an excellent opportunity to raise awareness around the growing issue of antibiotic resistance”.

The human cost of antibiotic resistance - which kills around 25,000 people a year in Europe, is considerable, but there are significant financial implications as well. In 2009 the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said it was already costing the EU about 1.5 billion Euros a year in healthcare expenses and lost productivity, though it is thought that even this is significantly under-estimated. 

PHE is currently running an Antibiotic Guardian campaign involving both the public and healthcare professionals to slow resistance by cutting the use of unnecessary antibiotics.