Social networking sites like Twitter can spread misunderstandings about proper use of antibiotics, a new study says.

Columbia University and MixedInk (New York) researchers studied the content of Twitter updates mentioning antibiotics, to determine how people were sharing information and assess the proliferation of misinformation.

“Research focusing on microblogs and social networking services is still at an early stage,” Daniel Scanfeld of Columbia University said.

“Further study is needed to assess how to promote healthy behaviours and to collect and disseminate trustworthy information using these tools,” Scanfeld added.

The authors stressed that because health information is shared extensively on such networks, it is important for health care professionals to have a basic familiarity with social networking media services like Twitter.

Using content analysis of 52,153 tweets mentioning antibiotics between March 13 and July 31, 2009, researchers categorised each tweet into one of 11 groups: general use, advice/information, side effects/negative reactions, diagnosis, resistance, misunderstanding and/or misuse, positive reactions, animals, wanting/needing, cost and others.

Thousand status updates were selected randomly from the list and analysed.

The most common category was “general use,” including a range of simple updates about taking antibiotics.

The second most common category was “advice and information”. The third most prevalent category was “side effects/negative reactions,” including a variety of complaints and side effects from taking a medication.

Examples of side effects ranged from the general, such as, “those antibiotics made me want to die,” to the more specific, “I am on antibiotics that make me want to vomit,” a release of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) said.

The authors also found that even though the category of “misunderstanding and/or misuse” only comprised about 700 of the tweets considered, such misunderstandings could easily spread to a large audience due to the nature of information flow through the Twitter network.

The most popular word combination in this category was “flu + antibiotics,” with 345 status updates, including misinformation reaching a total of 172,571 followers. The next most popular word combination was “cold + antibiotics,” with 302 status updates reaching a total of 850,375 followers.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Infection Control, the official publication of APIC.

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