A lack of awareness about the usage and potential side effects of antibiotics in China is putting people's health at risk, the country's drug watchdog warned on Saturday.
According to a new study by the State Food and Drug Administration, Chinese people continue to self-medicate using powerful drugs to treat minor ailments, a habit that could lead to the development of stronger, resistant strains of illnesses.
A survey of 8,000 people found that roughly 23 per cent will take antibiotics as soon as they suspect they have the common cold, while 9 per cent will do the same when they have diarrhoea.
The survey collected the views of 7,300 people throughout China via an online questionnaire, and an additional 600 people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen completed a phone survey.
Health experts warn that antibiotics, which kill or slow down the growth of bacteria in the body, should be taken only in serious cases.
"It's not safe to use antibiotics (without guidance from a doctor)," Wang Lianglan, spokeswoman for the administration said at a news conference to promote the proper use of drugs in China.
When children develop the symptoms of a cold, their parents will often ask a doctor to give them antibiotics, she said. "This shows that many people have little knowledge on the side effects."
Peng Bibo, deputy director of the medical department at the General Hospital of Armed Police Forces in Beijing, said the overuse of antibiotics in China was a serious issue. He said that in many instances, illnesses such as a cold or the flu may be viral and not bacteria-based, rendering the antibiotics useless.
"Misuse or overuse of antibiotics may also cause adverse effects that range from nausea and diarrhoea, and may cause damage to the kidneys," he said. "It may kill or damage the normal bacteria."
Peng said he advised his patients not to take such drugs when they caught mild illnesses such as a cold, but "many of them don't take my advice".
"It takes too much time and money to see a doctor when we just have a cold," said Cao Pu, 24, from Changsha, capital of Hunan province, adding that her family and friends buy pills from the pharmacy to keep at home in case they get sick, many of which are antibiotic drugs.
"In most cases, it works," she said.
Like Cao, more than 61 per cent of online respondents to the drug watchdog survey said they always have some antibiotic drugs at home.
"Actually, patients who use antibiotics may face a harder road to recovery because of the resistance of bacteria to these drugs, which is a common side effect," said Peng. "We have to increase the dose to have an effect."
He said a fever lower than 38.7 C will be cured without taking any medicine, and suggested people strengthen their bodies through exercise, and governments and hospitals increase public awareness of the side effects of antibiotic misuse.
"It's very difficult to change people's mistaken views on the use of antibiotics," he said.
The Ministry of Health estimates an average of 138 grams of antibiotics are used per person on the mainland each year, nearly 10 times the amount in the United States. Tough regulations to control the clinical use of antibiotics took effect on Aug 1.