Honey and over-the-counter medicines should be the first line of treatment for people with coughs instead of antibiotics, new guidelines suggest.
Antibiotics do little to improve symptoms and should rarely be prescribed for coughs, Public Health England (PHE) health officials say.
The advice is part of a growing effort to tackle the problem of antibiotic overuse - antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is making infections harder to treat and creating drug-resistant superbugs.
‘Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, and we need to take action now to reduce antibiotic use,’ said Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director at PHE.
New proposed guidelines from National Institute for Health and Care (NICE) and PHE say there is some evidence, although limited, that proves honey can ease cough symptoms.
‘These new guidelines will support GPs to reduce antibiotic prescriptions and we encourage patients to take their GP’s advice about self-care,’ Ms Hopkins continued.
A hot drink with honey is a well known home remedy for coughs and a sore throat.
As many as one in five GP prescriptions may be inappropriate, according to research published by PHE, and the organisation has warned that overuse of the drugs is threatening their long-term effectiveness.
Despite this, further research suggests that 48% of UK GP practices have prescribed antibiotics for a cough or bronchitis.
The NICE guidelines recommend that antibiotics may be necessary for a cough when it is part of a more serious underlying illness, or when a person is at risk of further complications, such as those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems.
Honey is also not recommended for children under the age of 1 because it occasionally contains bacteria that can cause infant botulism - a rare but serious gastrointestinal condition where bacteria and grow and multiply in the intestines.
‘People can check their symptoms on NHS Choices or NHS Direct Wales or ask their pharmacist for advice,’ explains Dr Tessa Lewis, GP and chair of the antimicrobial prescribing guidelines group for NICE.
‘If the cough is getting worse rather than better, or the person feels very unwell or breathless, then they would need to contact their GP.’
In most cases, acute coughs are caused by a cold or flu virus, or bronchitis, and will last for about 3 weeks.
‘Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them puts you and your family at risk of developing infections which in turn cannot be easily treated,’ adds Ms Hopkins.
A consultation on the new draft guidance will close 20 September.