Medical doctors and patients commonly believe that yellow and green phlegm indicates a bacterial infection, which is more likely to benefit from antibiotic treatment. However a new study reveals that this common belief is a myth.

The study enrolled 3,402 adult patients with acute cough in 14 primary care networks. Findings showed that patients producing discolored phlegm are prescribed antibiotics more frequently than those not producing phlegm, unlike those producing clear or white phlegm.

What’s more, antibiotic treatment was not associated with greater rate or magnitude of recovery among those who produced yellow or green phlegm. It was also not associated with increased recovery among patients with clear or white phlegm.

Cardiff University’s School of Medicine Professor Chris Butler, who led the study, says: “Our findings add weight to the message that acute cough in otherwise well adults is a self-limiting condition and antibiotic treatment does not speed recovery to any meaningful extent.”

“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.”

European Respiratory Journal – March 20, 2011;Epub.

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