When we were kids, my sister and I loved taking amoxicillin for a childhood sickness. The liquid version, which we called “pink medicine” was bubble gum-flavored and tasted a lot better than other medications, or so we thought. But a new study says that amoxicillin, one of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the country, is not as effective as previously thought when treating coughs and respiratory problems.
The study, recently published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, involved 2,061 patients 18 years and older (across twelve European countries) who went to their doctor for a lower-respiratory infection that was not suspected to be pneumonia and had a cough lasting fewer than four weeks. Half of the people were assigned to receive amoxicillin and half took a placebo medication. Both groups took their medication three times a day for seven days. Interestingly, neither the patients nor the prescribers knew which treatment was which.
The people in the study received follow-up phone interviews and they also completed daily diary entries for symptoms as well as for side effects for about a month. Ultimately, the study found that the length and severity of symptoms was roughly the same for both groups, regardless of whether they were treated with amoxicillin or a placebo. But the side effects (like diarrhea, vomiting and rashes) were higher in the group that took the medication.
Paul Little, one of the researchers, said in a prepared statement:
Patients given amoxicillin don’t recover much quicker or have significantly fewer symptoms. Our results show that most people get better on their own.
Philipp Schuetz of the Medical University Department Kantonsspital Aarau in Switzerland added that the findings:
should encourage physicians in primary care to refrain from antibiotic treatment in low-risk patients.
According to the IMS research group’s Institute for Healthcare Informatics’ 2011 report, amoxicillin is the eighth most commonly prescribed drug in the U.S.. There are over 52.3 million prescriptions written each year for it (whoa!). It’s prescribed often because its patent has expired so it’s very cheap, and also because doctors generally see it as effective.
The problem is that amoxicillin is often prescribed for illnesses that are actually viral, and not bacterial. Doctors in clinical settings are often rushed so they’ll write a prescription for amoxicillin as a cautionary measure. Researchers say that it will be difficult to convince both clinicians and patients that antibiotics are not always necessary and effective, but that they hope the findings will cause people to think twice about both prescribing or taking them.
Awareness is rising about the overprescription of antibiotics (and how bad it can be for both individual health and public health) but I think the lesson here is to be an active, informed participant in your own health. If you’re sick with a respiratory infection, it’s worth watching, waiting and monitoring in conjunction with your healthcare provider to see if it’s something that really necessitates treatment with a powerful drug, or if it’s a viral problem that will go away with rest and careful care.