Antibiotic prescribing for patients with colds, upper respiratory tract infections, and bronchitis: A national study of hospital-based emergency departments

Ann Emerg Med. 2000 Oct;36(4):320-7. doi: 10.1067/mem.2000.109341.


Study objective: Antibiotics are often used to treat viral upper respiratory tract infections, even though they are usually ineffective. However, frequent inappropriate antibiotic use contributes to the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial pathogens. This study used a national database to evaluate antibiotic use in treating upper respiratory tract infections in emergency departments.

Methods: Data were obtained from the 1996 National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Antibiotic prescribing rates were examined for colds, upper respiratory tract infections, and acute bronchitis. Patients with comorbid conditions or secondary diagnoses, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, sinusitis, and HIV, were excluded. Bivariate and multivariate analyses were used to assess predictors of antibiotic use.

Results: Overall, there were an estimated 2.7 million ED visits for colds, upper respiratory tract infections, and bronchitis by children and adults in 1996. Antibiotics were prescribed for 24.2% (95% CI 18.9, 29.5) of patients with common colds and upper respiratory tract infections and for 42.2% (95% CI 35.2, 49.2) of patients with bronchitis. There were no significant associations between antibiotic use and patient race, sex, Hispanic ethnicity, geographic location, or source of payment. Antibiotics were prescribed less often by interns or residents than by staff or other physicians (odds ratio 0.43; 95% CI 0.19, 0.98), and patients younger than 18 years were less likely to receive antibiotics than adults (odds ratio 0.32; 95% CI 0.20, 0.52). Smokers were 4.3 (95% CI 2.2, 8.3) times more likely to receive antibiotics than nonsmokers.

Conclusion: Antibiotics are commonly prescribed for ED patients with upper respiratory tract infections even though they are usually ineffective in otherwise healthy adults. Efforts should be made to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use for the sake of containing costs, preventing side effects, and limiting the spread of antibiotic resistance.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bronchitis / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Common Cold / drug therapy*
  • Drug Utilization / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • National Center for Health Statistics, U.S.*
  • Otitis Media / drug therapy
  • United States


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents