The HPA survey of 1800 people in England found that a quarter of people wrongly believe antibiotics work on coughs and colds, and that 97% are prescribed antibiotics on request.
In addition, 10% of people keep leftover antibiotics – and half of these self-medicate with them. These numbers are significant as 30% of the population use antibiotics in a year.
Experts have warned that overuse and misuse of antibiotics, combined with failure of the pharma industry to develop new ones, could lead to a rise in drug-resistant infections – which currently cause 25,000 deaths in Europe each year.
The HPA said that doctors must resist patient demands for antibiotics to treat viral infections such as coughs and colds. In addition, patients must not use leftover medication.
“There is evidence that the more antibiotics you have, the more likely you are to develop resistance,” said the HPA’s Dr Cliodna McNulty.
“Despite many years of public health campaigns advising people that antibiotics don’t work against coughs, colds and flu, our research results show that these myths prevail.”
The Department of Health has issued fresh guidance on antibiotic prescribing, urging doctors and nurses to “think twice”.
Professor Laura Piddock of the University of Birmingham’s School of Immunity and Infection also warned: “The demise of antibacterial drug discovery brings the spectre of untreatable infections.”