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Treat coughs with honey not antibiotics, doctors and patients told

People should try over-the-counter remedies to relieve their symptoms, new draft guidance advises.

Honey and over-the-counter remedies should be the go-to treatment for coughs rather than antibiotics, health officials have said.

Doctors will be told not to offer the drugs in most cases and to instead encourage patients to use self-care products, under new draft guidance from Public Health England (PHE) and the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

The advice is part of a growing effort by to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance.

In most cases, acute coughs are caused by a cold or flu virus, or bronchitis, and will last for around three weeks, according to the guidance.

Antibiotics make little difference to symptoms and can have side-effects, it warns.

Patients are instead advised to try honey or cough medicines containing pelargonium, guaifenesin or dextromethorphan, which have been shown to have some benefit for cough symptoms, before contacting their doctor.

Antibiotics may be necessary treat coughs in patients with pre-existing conditions such as lung disease, immunosuppression or cystic fibrosis, or those at risk of further complications, the guidance states.

Antibiotics do little to relieve the symptoms of a cough, officials say (Chris Ison/PA)
Antibiotics do little to relieve the symptoms of a cough, officials say (Chris Ison/PA)

Dr Tessa Lewis, GP and chairwoman of the antimicrobial prescribing guidelines group, said: “If someone has a runny nose, sore throat and cough, we would expect the cough to settle over two to three weeks and antibiotics are not needed.

“People can check their symptoms on NHS Choices or NHS Direct Wales or ask their pharmacist for advice.

“If the cough is getting worse rather than better, or the person feels very unwell or breathless, then they would need to contact their GP.”

As many as one in five GP prescriptions for antibiotics may be inappropriate, according to research published by PHE earlier this year, and the body has warned that overuse of the drugs is threatening their long-term effectiveness.

Dr Susan Hopkins, from PHE, said: “Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem and we need to take action now to reduce antibiotic use.

“Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them puts you and your family at risk of developing infections which in turn cannot be easily treated.

“These new guidelines will support GPs to reduce antibiotic prescriptions and we encourage patients to take their GPs advice about self-care.”

A consultation on the draft guidance will close on September 20.

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