Sharing Leftover Antibiotics Is a Really Bad Practice

sharing antibiotics
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, liquids and drops are the most commonly shared form of antibiotics. Onfokus/Getty Images

It's one of those things you kind of know you're not supposed to do, but you might be tempted to in a pinch. After all, those prescription labels are probably just suggestions, right? Yeah, no. Taking someone else's medications is pretty much always a terrible idea, but new research indicates parents may be perpetuating the problem more than experts realized.

Presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in November 2018, the abstract, titled "Diversion of Prescription Antibiotics: Should You Take from Peter to Treat Paul?" suggests an "alarming" percentage of parents have reported sharing or borrowing antibiotics that were originally prescribed for their children. The practice, called "antibiotic diversion" can lead to serious issues since taking unnecessary or improper doses of antibiotics contributes to the rising rates of antibiotic-resistant infections.


"Our study was prompted by several patient visits observed in our office where parents mentioned that their children had experienced illnesses or infections in recent months that they had resolved by taking leftover antibiotics they had on hand in their homes or receiving leftover antibiotics from individuals outside the family," lead author Tamara Kahan, a research assistant in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Northwell Health, says via email. "These parents did not consult a medical professional before taking the leftover antibiotics. We wanted to conduct a more systematic analysis to determine the prevalence of this practice — antibiotic diversion — among parents and children in the United States."

Antibiotics are intended to fight infections caused by disease-causing bacteria (single-celled organisms found inside and outside the body).The drugs either kill the bacteria or make it harder for them to multiply. The problem is, bacteria are unfortunately adaptive; when antibiotics are overused and/or misused, bacteria may become resistant, meaning the drugs no longer effectively fight them or keep them from multiplying.

For the study, researchers distributed an anonymous online questionnaire to a national sample of 496 parents. It turned out a whole lot of them were in the habit of doing some inadvisable behavior.

"We found that antibiotic diversion was highly prevalent," Kahan says. "48.2 percent of parents who had leftover antibiotics — after the antibiotics were taken by their children — reported saving them instead of disposing of them. 72.6 percent of those who had leftover antibiotics later shared them with other members of the family or unrelated adults." According to Kahan, questionnaire respondents indicated that they had not been told by their pediatricians to dispose of the antibiotics, even if there were leftovers, at the end of the course.

antibiotics chart
This chart shows the percentage of parents who saved leftover antibiotics prescribed for their children and later shared them.
Ruth Milanaik

There were some other key findings from the study too:

  • Liquids and drops were found to be the most commonly diverted form of antibiotics (80.4 percent of parents whose children were prescribed them and 73.8 percent, respectively). Creams came in third (69.7 percent) and tablets fourth (55.6 percent).
  • The diverted antibiotics were typically administered in the prescribed dosage ... which might sound like a good thing, but actually means the dosage usually wasn't properly adjusted for the recipient. Otherwise, parents were also prone to estimating dosage based on the age of the child — also not a great strategy, considering the amount of guesswork involved.
  • Overall, 16 percent of parents surveyed said that they'd given their child adult medications. Yikes.

The researchers behind the study see a silver lining to the unsettling findings. "Overuse of antibiotics has consequences not only to the individual but to the population as a whole as it contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria," Kahan says. "It is hoped that health care professionals will emphasize to patients the risks of taking antibiotics when they are not prescribed and the importance of disposing of leftover medication."

Bottom line: Sharing is caring, but definitely not when it comes to prescription drugs.