Antibiotics and Upper Respiratory Infection: Do Some Folks Think There Is a Cure for the Common Cold

J Fam Pract. 1996 Apr;42(4):357-61.


Background: Symptomatic treatment is the only recommended therapy for the uncomplicated "common cold." The purpose of this study was to examine the use of antibiotics and other prescription medications for the common cold in a Medicaid population seen in ambulatory care settings.

Methods: A cross-sectional sample of Kentucky Medicaid claims from July 1, 1993, through June 30, 1994, was analyzed. Subjects were patients seen in an ambulatory setting for the common cold, defined as acute nasopharyngitis. A total of 1439 individuals were seen for 2171 separate outpatient and emergency department encounters for the common cold. Outpatient visits accounted for 99% (2144) of the encounters.

Results: Patients in 35% (752) of the encounters did not fill a prescription for medication, 6% (129) filled a prescription for an antihistamine or other symptomatic medication, and 60% (1290) filled a prescription for an antibiotic for the common cold. Nineteen different antibiotics, 54% of which were amoxicillin, were prescribed for the common cold. Less than 2% of the encounters had a secondary diagnosis of either acute sinusitis or otitis media. These encounters were not more likely than the total sample to receive antibiotics. Adults were more likely than children to receive an antibiotic (P<.001), and urban physicians were more likely than rural physicians to prescribe antibiotics (P=.02). A conservative estimate of the annual cost of antibiotic prescribing for the common cold in the United States was $37.5 million.

Conclusions: A majority of persons receiving medical care for the common cold are given prescriptions for an unnecessary antibiotic. Unchecked, this practice may lead to greater antibiotic resistance and unnecessary use of health care resources. Future research should focus on the ability to institute behavioral changes for treatment of the common cold in both closed systems (eg, managed care) and open systems (eg, general community of physicians).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Child
  • Common Cold / complications
  • Common Cold / drug therapy*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Utilization
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents