Expectations for consultations and antibiotics for respiratory tract infection in primary care: The RTI clinical iceberg

Cliodna A.M. McNulty*, Tom Nichols, David P. French, Puja Joshi, Chris C. Butler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Citations (Scopus)


Background Respiratory tract infection (RTI) is the commonest indication for community antibiotic prescriptions. Prescribing is rising and is influenced by patients' consulting behaviour and beliefs. Aim To build up a profile of the 'RTI clinical iceberg' by exploring how the general public manage RTI, visit GPs and why. Design and setting Two-phase qualitative and quantitative study in England. Method Qualitative interviews with 17 participants with acute RTI visiting pharmacies in England, and face-to-face questionnaire survey of 1767 adults ≥15 years in households in England during January 2011. Results Qualitative interviews: interviewees with RTI visited GPs if they considered their symptoms were prolonged, or severe enough to cause pain, or interfered with daily activities or sleep. Questionnaire: 58% reported having had an RTI in the previous 6 months, and 19.7% (95% CI = 16.8 to 22.9%) of these contacted or visited their GP surgery for this, most commonly because 'the symptoms were severe'; or 'after several days the symptoms hadn't improved'; 10.3% of those experiencing an RTI (or 53.1% of those contacting their GP about it) expected an antibiotic prescription. Responders were more likely to believe antibiotics would be effective for a cough with green rather than clear phlegm. Perceptions of side effects of antibiotics did not influence expectations for antibiotics. Almost all who reported asking for an antibiotic were prescribed one, but 25% did not finish them. Conclusion One-fifth of those with an RTI contact their GP and most who ask for antibiotics are prescribed them. A better public understanding about the lack of benefit of antibiotics for most RTIs and addressing concerns about illness duration and severity, could reduce GP consultations and antibiotic prescriptions for RTI.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e429-e436
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number612
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


  • Antibiotics
  • Beliefs
  • Family practice
  • Qualitative research
  • Questionnaire
  • Respiratory tract infections


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