GP prescribing of antibiotics for coughs and colds has increased in the past 15 years - despite guidelines urging against it, researchers say.

GP leaders said they continue to urge the profession to "resist pressure" from patients for the drugs. According to the study, by 2011 more than 50% of patients seeking help from GPs for coughs and colds received antibiotics. The proportion had fallen to 36% in 1999 - and was 45% in 1995.

Researchers said there had been no increase in the proportion of patients with sore throats getting antibiotics – but the levels remain high at 62%. It had been 77% in 1995. The research was undertaken by Public Health England and by University College, London. Public Health England said its advice remains that antibiotics should not be given for simple coughs and colds or for viral sore throats. There should also be limited prescribing for uncomplicated cystitis.

The findings, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, come from an analysis of 537 GP practices. Researcher Professor Jeremy Hawker said: “Although it would be inappropriate to say that all cases of coughs and colds or sore throats did not need antibiotics, our study strongly suggests that there is a need to make improvements in antibiotic prescribing.

"The worry is that patients who receive antibiotics when they are not needed run the risk of carrying antibiotic resistant bacteria in their gut. If these bacteria go on to cause an infection, antibiotics will then not work when the patient really does need them."

The Royal College of GPs said it backed efforts to reduce antibiotic prescriptions. Chair Dr Maureen Baker said: "We have developed a worrying reliance on them and GPs face enormous pressure to prescribe them, even for minor symptoms which will get better on their own or can be treated effectively with other forms of medication.

“Our patients and the public need to be aware of the risks associated with inappropriate use of antibiotics and how to use them responsibly. 

“This study reinforces the message that we issued recently for frontline health professionals to resist pressure from patients for unnecessary prescriptions and explore alternatives to them.”