People seeing GPs for minor ailments such as coughs and colds are having a "catastrophic impact" on the NHS, leading healthcare professionals warned today.

Common treatable ailments now account for almost a fifth of GP appointments and are costing the health service an "astonishing" £2 billion annually, they said.

In a letter to The Times, the group also warned the NHS had become "the victim of a demand-led culture" with 51.4 million consultations annually for minor problems alone.

They wrote: "We are now a society in which the common disturbances to normal good health, such as coughs and colds, account for nearly one fifth of GP workload.

"New research reveals the catastrophic impact of this dependency on the NHS and how the NHS has become the victim of a demand-led culture.

"Seeing a GP for ailments that can be self-treated is estimated to cost an astonishing £2 billion every year."

The letter adds: "A shift in behaviour around treating minor ailments could save the NHS this money without any cuts to services whatsoever."

Nearly half the 51.4 million consultations were generated by people aged between 16 and 59, the group's research has suggested.

Back pain was the most common reason, prompting 8.4 million sessions, with other problems consulted on including colds, acne, constipation and migraines.

Among the letter's 17 signatories are Professor David Haslam, former chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners; Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance; and Dr John Chisholm, former chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs committee.

They are launching a Self Care Campaign, calling on people to use the NHS at the "point of need, not demand".

It also aims to "educate people to manage minor ailments so that GPs and practice nurses' time is freed up to look after more complex conditions".