Study: Students Misunderstand Antibiotics

May 15, 2001 -- Each year 200 million doses of antibiotics are administered across the United States.

In certain cases they are potent disease-fighting tools, but in other cases, such as colds or flu, they may be worse than useless. Some feel that the public may not totally understand the proper use of antibiotics.

"When you have a parent come in, who is very upset, very concerned about the child, the pediatrician feels its probably not a bacterial infection, probably it's a viral infection and it will go away on its own but we still give antibiotics because that's what the family wants," said Dr. Robert Macauley of Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Conn.

Quick Fix Syndrome to Blame

A recent study at the University of Virginia found that students who went to the health center because of cold symptoms expected to receive antibiotics even though the prescription would not have helped them. This common misconception has physicians urging health professionals to get the correct information out to patients.

"I think that, overall, Americans want a quick fix for illnesses becausethey feel that antibiotics will cure just about anything, so they go to thephysician complaining of respiratory illnesses not knowing that they'recaused by viruses and expecting the antibiotic will cure them," said University of Virginia physician Katherine Haltiwanger.

Antibiotics are effective for bacterial infections. But most of the students came in with cold and flu symptoms, which antibiotics will not cure.

With the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the misconceptions about the proper use of antibiotics are more crucial than ever, said Macauley.

Misconception Grows

As children grow up, the misconception grows along with them, the study suggests.

Students visiting the campus health center at University of Virginia filled out questionnaires and over half of them with complaints of cold symptoms expected antibiotics.

Another problematic finding from the study was that students also were taking antibiotics left over from previous illnesses.

"One-third of the students that we saw had previously taken an antibiotic that was left over from an illness they had or had taken one that was prescribed for someone else, and this is a serious misconception about the use of antibiotics and can be dangerous to the patient," said Haltiwanger.

Curt Epstein is a reporter with Science and Technology News Network.

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