Antibiotics no more effective at relieving coughs and colds than a sugar pill

Those taking antibiotics in study reported more side effects including rash, nausea and diarrhoea

The winter may be peak season for coughs and colds but there is no point in taking antibiotics to shift them, experts say.

The largest randomised placebo-controlled trial of antibiotics for acute respiratory infections has shown that they are no more effective at relieving symptoms than taking a sugar pill.

Even older patients given the drugs did not recover more quickly or have fewer symptoms than those who simply waited for the untreated illness to run its course.  

The international study run in 12 European countries including England and Wales included more than 2,000 adults with chest infections who were randomly assigned to receive either amoxicillin, the commonest antibiotic prescribed by GPs, or a placebo.

After taking the drugs three times a day for seven days, the two groups were assessed. Little difference was found in either severity or duration of symptoms, even among patients over 60. Those taking antibiotics reported more side effects including rash, nausea and diarrhoea.

Medical authorities around the globe, including Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s chief medical officer in the UK and Dr Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation, have appealed to doctors and patients for restraint in use of the drugs to conserve them for serious conditions.

The world is awash with antibiotics and there is a growing threat from antibiotic resistant bacteria which could transform common infections into untreatable, and potentially fatal, illnesses.

The findings of the latest study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, lend weight to their appeal.  Paul Little, professor of primary care research at the University of Southampton, who led the study, said: “Using amoxicillin to treat respiratory infections in patients not suspected of having pneumonia is not likely to help and could be harmful.”

A commentary on the findings, published alongside, says: “[The researchers] have generated convincing data that should encourage physicians in primary care to refrain from antibiotic treatment in low-risk patients in whom pneumonia is not suspected.”

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