Media release: Expert warns of the dangers of using old antibiotics

A health expert has issued a warning to people not to save unused antibiotics at home to take later at their own discretion - as this risks more harm than good.

As concerns over antibiotic resistant infections grow, an expert from Healthcare Improvement Scotland has urged people to avoid using antibiotics they may have saved up at home, as their overuse presents a serious threat to the future of healthcare.

Professor Andrew Seaton, Chair of the Scottish Antimicrobial Prescribing Group (SAPG), part of Healthcare Improvement Scotland, said: “We know that many people have antibiotics at home which they or another family member have been previously prescribed and there can be a temptation, when feeling unwell, to use them.

“However, it’s quite likely, at times when chest and throat infections are common, that infection will be caused by one of the many circulating viruses rather than by an infection that requires an antibiotic.

“Antibiotics will not speed up recovery from a viral illness and they may cause unwanted effects including stomach upset. Critically, future infections may be more difficult to treat because overuse of antibiotics drives the development of antibiotic resistance.”

Using antibiotics that have been lying around the house for a while means they may also have expired. Once the expiration date of a medicine has passed there’s no guarantee that it will be either safe or effective.

A survey of 2000 people in 2022 found that one in three people said they had taken expired medicines and almost a third of these said they had taken medicines that were not meant for them.

The most common reason for an antibiotic prescription is for respiratory tract infections eg infections of the throat, ear or chest.

Professor Seaton, an infectious diseases consultant in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, explained: “Although we are making progress in getting across the importance of not overusing antibiotics, we know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on our healthcare system including the way in which people access healthcare advice.

“We think this has at least contributed to an increase in the use of antibiotics. Work is still needed to protect our population from the very real threat of antibiotic resistant infections and to help preserve our precious antibiotics for future generations as well as for those who need them most now.

Professor Seaton has also highlighted the importance of safe disposal of unused medicines. He said: “Antibiotics don’t only act on germs inside of us, but also act on the many germs living in soil and water and we know that antibiotic resistance in the environment has important consequences for plant, animal and human health.

“It’s essential therefore that we avoid environmental contamination by not disposing of antibiotics in household waste for landfill or flush them down the toilet. Safe disposal of unused antibiotics will reduce the environmental impact and help protect our planet.”

Global analysis of more than 200 countries in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, estimated that infections due to antibiotic resistance are now a leading cause of death worldwide, higher even than HIV/AIDS or malaria. More than one million deaths are estimated to occur annually as a direct result of antibiotic resistant infections due to common, previously treatable infections such as pneumonia and bloodstream infections.

In a bid to encourage people to safely dispose of unused antibiotics, pharmacies throughout Scotland are offering an ‘amnesty’ where people can return medicines to them to be safely disposed of.

Professor Seaton said: “For the majority of people who are feeling unwell with a cough, cold or sore throat, symptoms will settle with simple measures including rest, increasing fluid intake and careful use of pain killers such as paracetamol.“

There is a useful check list which people can go through on the NHS 24 website to decide if further advice is needed Cough | NHS 24.

Professor Seaton added: “For people with known serious underlying health conditions or for those where symptoms are not settling within a few days or are worsening it is advisable to take advice from NHS 24, their pharmacist or GP.”


Content update Feb 2024

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