British doctors should slash the number of times they prescribe antibiotics for respiratory tract infections because the drugs rarely help, the country's drug cost watchdog said on Wednesday.
This means doctors in the state's health system should not prescribe antibiotics for most cases of sore throats, colds, bronchitis or other types of respiratory infections, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, or NICE, said.
They should also delay writing such prescriptions and reassure people the drugs are not needed immediately and would make little difference because most respiratory infections are viral, the new guidelines said.
"Management of respiratory tract infections in the past concentrated on advising prompt antibiotic treatment," Paul Little, who helped write the new guidelines, said in a statement.
"However, as rates of major complications are much less common in modern developed countries, so the evidence of symptomatic benefit should be strong to justify prescribing antibiotics so that we are not needlessly exposing patients to side effects."
The overuse of antibiotics is a growing concern for health officials worldwide as hospitals report an increasing number of drug-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
The drugs watchdog said a quarter of people in England and Wales visit the doctor because of respiratory tract infections, which account for 60% of all antibiotic prescriptions in general practice.
It also recommended offering antibiotics to people showing signs of serious illness or for people older than 65 years with certain conditions.
NICE is a world leader in measuring the cost-effectiveness of new treatments and deciding which ones are worth using on the state-run health service.
Its actions are closely watched by other governments and insurers. The organisation plays a key role in rationing healthcare but its decisions have often proved controversial.
Reviewed by Ramaz Mitaishvili, MD