Blog post: Children with asthma are being prescribed unnecessary antibiotics

New research has found children with asthma are more likely to be prescribed antibiotics compared to children without asthma. Asthma UK's in-house GP, Andy Whittamore, takes a closer look at what this might mean.

Antibiotics are used to treat variety of infections caused by bacteria which can affect any part of the body including the skin, tonsils, urine and chest. The inflammation that is associated with asthma isn’t caused by bacteria so antibiotics do not help to treat asthma symptoms.

So why is it that children with asthma are more likely to be prescribed antibiotics, even though there’s no evidence that they need them any more than children without the condition?

What this research means

The study included 1.5 million children in the UK, including around 150,00 with asthma, and a further 375,00 from The Netherlands, including around 30,000 with asthma.

The researchers behind the study say their results show that asthma symptoms are potentially being mistaken for a respiratory tract infection, and as a result antibiotics are being prescribed unnecessarily.

This research found that most of the antibiotic prescriptions for children with asthma were intended to treat asthma attacks or bronchitis. However, current guidelines do not recommend automatically prescribing antibiotics after asthma attacks because they’re rarely associated with bacterial infections.

The findings highlight the need for more understanding of asthma symptoms among healthcare professionals. Unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics in children could leave them more at risk of future infection that is difficult to treat.

What should you do if your child is prescribed antibiotics?

You’ll probably have seen in the news that over-prescribing of antibiotics is leading to a rise in drug-resistant infections (sometimes called ‘super bugs’). This occurs where the bacteria learn to recognise certain antibiotics and evolve so that they can’t be killed by them.

Both asthma and bacterial chest infections can result in children sounding chesty. Your GP or nurse should listen to your child’s chest, take a temperature and ask more questions, including about the colour of the sputum (phlegm) to help identify whether a bacterial infection might be present.

If your child is prescribed antibiotics for any reason, you should make sure they finish the whole course. It might be tempting to stop when they start to feel better, but doing this can give the bacteria a chance to recover and your child might start to feel worse again. Finishing the course of antibiotics makes sure that all the bacteria are killed and none of them get the chance to learn how survive against the antibiotics.

If your child is taking a course of antibiotics for a chest infection and their asthma symptoms are not improving, take them back to their GP –they may need additional treatment to help them to recover quickly. Make sure that they have a written asthma action plan and ask your GP or nurse how quickly you should expect to see an improvement, and if there is any follow up planned. 

If you’re concerned about your medicines, speak to your GP or asthma nurse. You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 and talk to an expert asthma nurse between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Whether you want to check something your GP has told you, or are confused about how your medicines work, they’re here to help.