As many as 10 million prescriptions for antibiotics are handed out each year to patients who don’t need them, the NHS medicines watchdog has warned.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), some patients are so determined to be treated with the drugs for minor infections that they will seek out doctors who are a “soft touch” to get hold of them.
In new guidance for health professionals, NICE says inappropriate use of antibiotics is causing a rapid growth in superbugs that are resistant to the drugs.
Without urgent action, infections will in future have to be treated surgically if drugs no longer work.
Research shows nine out of 10 GPs feel pressured to prescribe antibiotics and almost all – 97% – patients who ask for them get them.
Professor Mark Baker, director of the NICE Centre for Clinical Practice, said: “It’s entrenched in our society.
“There are people who are addicted to the idea of having antibiotics. If they know there’s a soft touch doctor then they go to them.
“Often they will go to their GP and (if unsuccessful) then try another one.”
Prof Baker said previous guidance from NICE on respiratory tract infections should have resulted in a 22% fall in antibiotic prescribing. In fact use of the drugs has since risen.
The new advice for doctors and nurses urges them to discuss the risks of taking antibiotics for mild infections that clear up on their own.
“They can cause allergy and upset the normal bacterial balance in the gut,” he said
“They do more harm than good in some patients.”
The guidelines call for antibiotic stewardship programmes that monitor the use of the drugs locally.
Doctors who prescribe inappropriate antibiotics, at the wrong dose or for the wrong duration could be challenged.
David Battie, an Antiques Roadshow expert, had multiple courses of different antibiotics in a failed attempt to cure an infection that spread to his bones after he broke his leg.
Eventually the area was cut out and patched with a skin graft, leaving significant scarring. He is still in pain.
He told Sky News: “It’s people turning up with their child and saying, ‘Little Johnny has a sniffle’ and to get rid of them the doctor writes a prescription.
“They don’t realise that by doing that they are creating a problem of massive proportions.”
Mr Battie is working with the charity Antibiotic Research UK to raise awareness of the threat.