More must be done to curb unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics, experts said after a new study found that the number of patients dished out the drugs for minor ailments has soared in recent years.

Thirty-six per cent of patients were given antibiotics for coughs and colds in 1999 but by 2011 this figure had soared to 51 per cent, researchers found.

This is despite the fact that the government issued guidance in 1998 warning GPs not to issue antibiotics for “simple” coughs and colds.

Health experts from around the globe have recently warned of the ever-growing threat of antibiotic resistance - which has been fuelled by unnecessary prescribing of the drugs.

The new research, by experts at Public Health England and University College London, also found there was “substantial variation” in prescribing among different GP surgeries.

After examining data concerning patients registered with 537 UK GP practices, they found that some practices were twice as likely to give a prescription for coughs and colds as those who dished out the fewest.

In 2011, the best performing practices were giving around 32% of patients antibiotics for coughs and colds compared to 65% in the worst performing GP surgeries.