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National Poll: Sizable Number of Older Adults Disregard Antibiotic Instructions

University of Michigan-AARP survey finds that 1 in 5 older adults take medications incorrectly

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En español | Although half of older adults have been helped by antibiotics in the past two years, a sizable minority didn't follow the instructions on their pill bottle, according to the results of a new University of Michigan-AARP poll of adults ages 50 to 80.

One in 5 respondents to the poll said they take leftover antibiotics without checking with medical professionals, a practice that researchers say is risky. Two in 5 said they expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for a cold. These medications, however, don't work on colds and other illnesses caused by viruses; antibiotics fight infections.

"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, M.D., a specialist in both infectious diseases and geriatric medicine. “These findings should be a reminder to physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other providers to step up their wise-prescribing practices and patient education."

One in 8 older adults said they had leftover pills from their last antibiotic prescription, even though most prescriptions require the patient to take all doses of the drug. Of the 13 percent who held on to the remaining medication, most said they saved it in case they or a family member developed an infection. Only 1 in 5 respondents disposed of the pills safely.

Those in their 50s and early 60s were much more likely to use leftover antibiotics than those over 65.

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"It's important to remember that antibiotics don't treat viruses like colds and flu and shouldn't be prescribed unless necessary,” cautions Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research at 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."

Older adults who stopped taking their antibiotics early were more likely to use the leftover doses without guidance.

The poll also revealed differences in how often and when antibiotics are prescibed.

Over half of respondents said doctors overprescribe the infection-fighting drugs, but 23 percent said physicians don't prescribe the drugs when they should.

Health care providers have been targets of increasing criticism in the past 10 years as health systems, insurers and the federal government work to eliminate improper prescribing. “Bad bugs” — drug-resistant bacteria — are on the rise and are considered a top threat by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And although the opioid epidemic has increased calls for consumers to clear out medicine cabinets, the warning should also apply to antibiotic disposal, Malani says.

"No one should hang on to old antibiotics just in case they or a loved one needs them,” she stresses. “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 data suggest that millions of antibiotics are sitting in medicine cabinets across the country. Law enforcement organizations, pharmacies and health care facilities offer national drug-disposal programs, with drop-off days or drop-off bins for all forms of medication.

The University of Michigan-AARP poll was based on a sample of more than 2,256 adults ages 50 to 80, who were asked questions about several aspects of their antibiotic use.

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