Patients who cough up green and yellow phlegm are regularly prescribed more antibiotics than patients who cough up clear phlegm. That’s because doctors have historically assumed colored phlegm was more likely to indicate a bacterial infection.
New research by the School of Medicine at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom suggests that assumption is wrong. A study of more than 3,000 patients in 13 European countries found that antibiotic treatment did not appear to speed up recovery of coughs.
Professor Chris Butler, who led the study, said the findings suggest that doctors are unnecessarily overprescribing antibiotics. Most coughs will resolve on their own, no matter what color the phlegm.
“In fact, antibiotic prescribing in this situation simply unnecessarily exposes people to side effects from antibiotics, undermines future self care, and drives up antibiotic resistance,” Professor Butler told the BBC.
Antibiotics can save lives, he added, but we need to be careful only to use them when there is a clear benefit.