With the NHS entering its traditionally busiest time of year, Dr Gavin Barlow, consultant in infection for Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said people should avoid asking their GP for antibiotics or using previously-prescribed tablets.
There have already been predictions of a difficult winter ahead for the NHS, as increasing numbers of people turn to A&E, an ageing population and “confusion” over existing services.
Dr Barlow said the biggest favour people could do for their local hospital was to manage coughs and colds by wrapping up warm, taking paracetamol, drinking fluids and resting – and staying away from hospital if coughing or sneezing.
A&E should be seen “as a last resort and never as a 24-hour ‘walk-in’ service for simple problems”, according to Dr Barlow.
He said: “Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them leads to an increase in the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. This could later land you in trouble if you get a genuine bacterial infection, which will then be much more difficult to treat.
“Antibiotics also kill our natural gut bacteria that keep us healthy, which can lead to C. diff diarrhoea, making susceptible persons very ill.
“Because of unnecessary antibiotic use, some serious infections are now almost untreatable. Antibiotics should only be used for bacterial infections, for example, pneumonia and urine and skin infections. They are useless against simple coughs, colds and flu, which are all caused by viruses.”
Last week NHS medical director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said: “When A&Es become very busy it means other parts of the system are creaking as well, they are under stress. It’s against that background that there’s a feeling this winter will be difficult.”