A big decrease in respiratory virus cases during the COVID-19 pandemic has gone hand-in-hand with a massive drop in antibiotic prescribing, a new study has found. The authors foresee pandemic mitigation measures being used to help reduce overprescribing in the future. 

Investigators tracked respiratory virus activity and antibiotic prescriptions indexed to physician encounters before and during the pandemic in the United States. The study period included cold and flu seasons from 2018 through 2020/2021. The results not only confirmed a relative decrease in non-COVID-19 infections such as cold and flu after COVID-19 began to spread, but also showed a 79% decline in ambulatory antibiotic prescribing rates for respiratory tract infections.

During the pre-pandemic period, antibiotic prescribing rates increased as usual during winter cold and flu seasons. But antibiotic prescribing rates decreased early in the pandemic and remained low through the following respiratory virus season, reported first author Alexander J. Lepak, M.D., of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison.

The changes appear to be the unintended consequence of public health measures to curb COVID-19 transmission, including cancellations of gatherings, closures of business, social distancing, wearing face masks, Lepak and colleagues wrote. 

“The data suggest that COVID-19 transmission mitigation strategies may help curb respiratory viral diseases beyond SARS-CoV-2 and, indirectly, decrease antibiotic prescribing,” the authors concluded.

Full findings were published as a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine.