Harvard Women's Health Watch

Hold off before taking antibiotics for respiratory infections, study suggests

A Spanish clinical trial of 400 people—two-thirds of whom were women—has indicated that waiting to fill an antibiotic prescription may be a good idea for people with sniffles, coughs, sore throats, and other respiratory symptoms.

Researchers recruited volunteers who sought care for respiratory symptoms in primary care clinics throughout Spain. The volunteers were randomly assigned to four equal groups. One was given antibiotics and told to take them immediately. Another was sent home without antibiotics but told to return to the clinic if they hadn't improved after several days. The two remaining groups were told to wait to take antibiotics—one was asked to return to the clinic to get their mediation after three days; the other group was given an antibiotic, but told to take the medication only if their symptoms hadn't improved after five to 10 days.

When the researchers checked back, they found that 91% of patients given antibiotics immediately took them, compared with 12% who weren't offered antibiotics initially, 33% who were asked to wait five to 10 days to take antibiotics, and 23% who had to return for their medication. The researchers found that severe symptoms lasted only about a day longer in the three groups told to delay taking antibiotics than in the group instructed to take them immediately.

If you are otherwise healthy, holding off taking antibiotics for respiratory infections may be a way to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use without affecting your recovery. The study was published online Dec. 21, 2015, by JAMA Internal Medicine.