That's according to a new study out of the University of Michigan, which found that approximately 60 percent of patients across the country receive such prescriptions despite the fact they aren't typically necessary for treatment. What's more: 20 percent of those who filled these prescriptions got antibiotic-steroid eyedrops that could make the infection worse or last longer.
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The results are in line with a trend across the country of antibiotic misuse when it comes to treating common viral and mild bacterial illnesses. The study was published in Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
There are three types of pinkeye: viral, bacterial and allergic conjunctivitis. Antibiotics can't fix viral infections or allergies, where most of the cases originate.
The data for the study came from a large managed care network in the United States. Researchers found that of the 340,372 people who received an acute conjunctivitis (pinkeye) diagnosis across a 14-year span, 58 percent filled their antibiotic eyedrop prescription. Only a small amount of these people received a diagnosis from an ophthalmologist, with the others seeing the likes of a family medicine physician, pediatrician and others.
"Filling antibiotic prescriptions seems to be driven more by sociodemographic factors and type of provider diagnosing the enrollee than by medical indication," according to the study.
For instance, those who wear contact lenses or who had diabetes or HIV/AIDS have a higher risk for such an infection.
In addition, there was a two or three times higher likelihood that people would fill antibiotic eyedrop prescriptions if a primary care or urgent care provider gave the diagnosis compared to an ophthalmologist.
Why are they overprescribed? Authors point to school policies (i.e. kids not being allowed in school without treatment) and a lack of education among patients as reasons, not to mention that much about the causes are still unknown. Health care providers could also be prescribing antibiotics unnecessarily.
"Educating patients about acute conjunctivitis' often benign, self-limited course may help to dispel misconceptions about the condition and reduce reflexive demands for immediate antibiotic use," Dr. Joshua Stein, study author, said in a statement.
In the United States alone, 6 million people get pinkeye every year.