Poll: 1 in 5 older adults save leftover antibiotics

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One in five older adults said that they’ve taken leftover antibiotics without checking with a doctor first, a new poll shows.

And two in five said they expected doctors to prescribe an antibiotic for a cold that lasts long enough to send them to a doctor—even though the drugs don’t work on colds and other illnesses that viruses cause.

Despite these practices and expectations, 89% of adults aged 50 to 80 who responded to the National Poll on Healthy Aging said they understand that overuse of antibiotics could mean the drugs won’t work against infections in the future.

“No one should hang on to old antibiotics just in case…”

“We obviously have work to do to help older adults understand safe and appropriate use of these medications so that we can preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for patients who need them most,” says poll director Preeti Malani, a specialist in both infectious diseases and the care of older adults at the University of Michigan.

“These findings should be a reminder to physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other providers to step up their wise-prescribing practices and patient education.”

The poll involved a national sample of more than 2,256 adults aged 50 to 80 who answered questions about many aspects of antibiotic use.

Sharing medications

Even though patients should take antibiotics as prescribed, which usually means all of them, one in eight older adults polled said they had leftover pills from their last antibiotic prescription.

For the 13% that had leftover antibiotics in the past two years, only one in five disposed of them safely, suggesting an opportunity for education. But most of the rest said they held onto the leftovers in case they or a family member developed an infection later.

The poll results suggest that those leftover antibiotics get used more often than health providers might want to believe, especially in people in their 50s and early 60s compared with those over age 65.

People who stopped taking antibiotics early were much more likely to use leftover pills—their own, or someone else’s—without guidance. In fact, half of those who had leftovers in the past two years said they had taken antibiotics without talking to a health care professional at least once in their lives, compared with 19% of all those polled.

Too many antibiotics or not enough?

The poll also explored older adults’ attitudes toward antibiotic prescribing. While 56% of respondents said they thought that doctors over-prescribe antibiotics, 23% said doctors didn’t prescribe the drugs when they should.

Health care providers have received much more scrutiny in the past decade over antibiotic prescribing than they did in the past, as health systems, insurers, and the federal government work to make prescribing more appropriate.

Despite these efforts, the number of “bad bugs” that have developed resistance to common antibiotics continues to rise. Experts at the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider drug-resistant bacteria a top threat.

“It’s important to remember that antibiotics don’t treat viruses like colds and flu, and shouldn’t be prescribed unless necessary,” says Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP. “If you want to avoid getting the flu, be sure to wash your hands regularly, stay home if you feel sick, and get an annual flu shot.”

What to do with the leftovers?

Efforts to encourage people to clear old medications out of their medicine cabinets have gained steam in recent years because of the opioid epidemic. But the call to dispose of unneeded medications safely should also include messaging about antibiotic disposal, Malani says.

“While we would hope that people would complete their antibiotics as prescribed to ensure that their infection is appropriately treated we know that this doesn’t always happen,” she says. “In such cases, the next best thing is to safely dispose of the leftovers.

“No one should hang on to old antibiotics just in case they or a loved one needs them. This carries many risks – including drug interactions, side effects, as well as resistance. Different antibiotics treat different types of infections. There is no ‘one size fits all’.”

The poll results suggest that millions of doses of antibiotics are currently sitting in the backs of medicine cabinets across the nation. Many law enforcement organizations, and an increasing number of pharmacies, health care locations, and municipalities, offer drop-off days or permanent secure drop-off bins for all types of medications, including antibiotics.

The AARP and Michigan Medicine supported the work.

Source: University of Michigan