Antibiotics have been overused to treat COVID-19 patients, a study in the US found, raising widespread concern about unnecessary antibiotic use during the pandemic.

According to the study by non-profit organization the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than half, 52%, of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the US received antibiotics during the first six months of the pandemic.

The more antibiotics are used, the faster antibiotic-resistant bacteria evolve to resist them, causing “superbugs” — bacteria that are extremely difficult or impossible to treat with existing drugs, a statement by the organization said on Wednesday.

“Even though antibiotics won’t cure viruses, including COVID-19, physicians concerned about secondary bacterial infections may nevertheless prescribe antibiotics to COVID-19 patients, sometimes before a bacterial infection is confirmed,” it said.

“In most cases, antibiotics were given to COVID-19 patients prior to confirmation of a bacterial infection,” the statement said, adding: “Compared to the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients who received antibiotics, far fewer patients admitted for COVID-19 had common bacterial infections.”

In addition, the study has found that patients who received antibiotics are more likely to have a longer hospitalization, since 60% of admissions with an antibiotic prescription had hospitalizations of four or more days, compared to 20% of admissions without an antibiotic prescribed lasted four or more days.

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