Too Many People 'Self-Prescribe' Antibiotics, Experts Say

Pills spill out of a prescription bottle.
(Image credit: Vucicevic Milos/

Many Americans store leftover antibiotic drugs in their homes and say that if they got sick, they would take the antibiotics without going to their doctor first, a new study finds.

The findings are troubling, experts say, in part because when people self-diagnose and treat themselves, they often end up taking antibiotics when they don't need to, which may further the spread of antibiotic resistance, the researchers said.

"When people self-diagnose and self-prescribe antibiotics, it is likely that the therapy is unnecessary, because most often, these are upper-respiratory infections that are mostly caused by viruses," study researcher Dr. Larissa Grigoryan, an instructor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said in a statement. (Antibiotics do not kill viruses.)

And even if people do have a bacterial infection, they may not take the right drug for that particular infection. Or, they may not take the medicine for long enough, allowing some bacteria to survive, which fosters resistance to the drugs, the researchers said. [6 Superbugs to Watch Out For]

In the study, the researchers analyzed information from 400 patients who went to family practice clinics in Houston and were surveyed about their use of antibiotics.

About 25 percent of the patients said they would take antibiotics without contacting their doctor, 14 percent said they stored antibiotics in their home and 5 percent said they had actually taken antibiotics without a doctor's prescription in the past year, the study found.

Among those who took antibiotics without a prescription, 40 percent said they purchased the antibiotics at a store or pharmacy in the United States, 20 percent said they got them from a friend or relative, 12 percent said they took leftover medications and 4 percent said they used veterinary antibiotics meant for animals. (It is illegal for stores in the U.S. to sell antibiotics over the counter.)

Among those who said they stored antibiotics at home, 74 percent said these drugs were left over from a previous prescription.

Efforts to combat antibiotic resistance have focused on curbing unnecessary prescriptions from doctors, but the new study suggests that attention should also be given to the problem of people taking antibiotics without a prescription, the researchers said.

In general, pople should take all of the antibiotics they are prescribed, and if for some reason they have left over medicine, they should throw it away, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The study is published online today (July 11) in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.