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Medicine

Commonly prescribed antibiotics ineffective for treating uncomplicated chest infections

Published: 14 December 2012
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The antibiotic amoxicillin, that doctors typically prescribe for common lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI) such as bronchitis, is no more effective at relieving symptoms than the use of no medication, even in older patients. The findings are from the largest randomised placebo controlled trial of antibiotics for acute uncomplicated LRTI to date, which was led by the University of Southampton and published Online First in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

“Patients given amoxicillin don’t recover much quicker or have significantly fewer symptoms”, explains Paul Little, Professor of Primary Care Research at the University of Southampton.

“Indeed, using amoxicillin to treat respiratory infections in patients not suspected of having pneumonia is not likely to help and could be harmful. Overuse of antibiotics, which is dominated by primary care prescribing, particularly when they are ineffective, can lead to side effects such as diarrhoea, rash, vomiting and the development of resistance.”

LRTI (chest infections) are one of the most common acute illnesses treated in primary care in developed countries. Although viruses are believed to cause most of these infections, whether or not antibiotics are beneficial in the treatment of LRTI, particularly in older patients, is still hotly debated. Research so far has produced conflicting results.

In the study, from the GRACE (Genomics to Combat Resistance against Antibiotics in Community-acquired LRTI in Europe) consortium and funded by the European Community’s Sixth Framework Programme, 2061 adults with acute uncomplicated LRTI from primary care practices in 12 European countries (England, Wales, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia) were randomly assigned to receive either amoxicillin or a placebo three times a day for seven days. Doctors assessed symptoms at the start of the study and participants completed a daily symptom diary.

Little difference in severity or duration of symptoms was reported between the two groups. This was true even for older patients aged 60 or more who were generally healthy, in whom antibiotics appeared to have a very limited effect.

Although significantly more patients in the placebo group experienced new or worsening symptoms (19.3% vs 15.9%), the number needed to treat was high (30), and just two patients in the placebo group and one in the antibiotic group required hospitalisation.

What is more, patients taking antibiotics reported significantly more side effects including nausea, rash, and diarrhoea, than those given placebo (28.7% vs 24%).

Professor Little adds: “Our results show that most people get better on their own. But, given that a small number of patients will benefit from antibiotics the challenge remains to identify these individuals.”

Writing in a linked comment, Philipp Schuetz from the University of Basel in Switzerland says: “Little and colleagues have generated convincing data that should encourage physicians in primary care to refrain from antibiotic treatment in low-risk patients in whom pneumonia is not suspected. Whether this one-size-fits-all approach can be further improved remains to be seen. Guidance from measurements of specific blood biomarkers of bacterial infection might help to identify the few individuals who will benefit from antibiotics despite the apparent absence of pneumonia and avoid the toxic effects and costs of those drugs and the development of resistance in the other patients.”

Notes for editors

  1. A copy of the paper Amoxicillin for acute lower-respiratory-tract infection in primary care when pneumonia is not suspected: a 12-country, a randomised placebo-controlled trial, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, is available at http://press.thelancet.com/LRTI.pdf
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.


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