Thousands of people are visiting their GPs unnecessarily to ask about ailments from dandruff to travel sickness, the NHS has revealed, as it launches a project to try and cut out needless visits to doctors' surgeries.

The NHS launched its nationwide project as it revealed research showing that 40,000 people visit their doctor because they are worried about dandruff, while a further 20,000 go to their local surgery for travel sickness.

One of the largest unnecessary causes of visits was the common cold – with the study finding 5.2 million visits by patients with a blocked nose.

The survey – which was carried out by analysing records from more than 200 GP surgeries around the country – found almost one in five appointments was for a very minor problem, equating to more than 51 million unnecessary visits to the GP every year.

Doctors believe that if such trips could be curtailed waiting times would be cut, millions of pounds would be saved from the NHS budget and patients would get faster and more convenient treatment.

Dr Paul Stillman, a GP in Crawley, West Sussex, and a member of the National Self Care Forum said: "What we think so far is that patients tend to use the same source of advice whatever the symptoms. So they'll either go to their GP for everything, or always go to their pharmacist, or phone NHS Direct. "We want to test this theory on a larger number of people to try and identify ways of getting them to alter their behaviour."

Dr Stillman said one of the areas they were hoping to look at was bringing back basic health education into schools as long-term way to address awareness. "In the past there would usually be someone older and wiser in your extended family you could go to get advise but that appears to have broken down somewhat.

"It may be that we need to start at the roots and work up by educating the next generation about some of these issues. But he added that the primary motivation was not about saving money. "That would obviously be a good thing. We do have a population growing older in England and it does mean we need to take steps so that we can focus more resources on these potentially vulnerable groups of people.

"But it is also about giving patients the knowledge so they can get the fastest and best suited treatment and advice."

Stephanie Varah, the chief executive of the National Association for Patient Participation, is the patient champion for the national Self Care Forum: "Empowering individuals to access and understand appropriate information that supports shared and informed decision making about treatment, self care and lifestyle choices is key to helping people understand how they can better look after themselves."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "It is important that people get the right advice and care from the right health professional, in the right place, at the right time.

"People with a minor ailment can visit their local pharmacist, who is a qualified health professional and will be able to offer advice and support or direct them to see their GP."