Identifying potential risk factors related to severe COVID-19 outcomes is important. Repeated intermittent antibiotic use is known be associated with adverse outcomes. This study aims to examine whether prior frequent antibiotic exposure is associated with severe COVID-19 outcomes.


With the approval of NHS England, we used the OpenSAFELY platform, which integrated primary and secondary care, COVID-19 test, and death registration data. This matched case–control study included 0.67 million patients (aged 18–110 years) from an eligible 2.47 million patients with incident COVID-19 by matching with replacement. Inclusion criteria included registration within one general practice for at least 3 years and infection with incident COVID-19. Cases were identified according to different severity of COVID-19 outcomes. Cases and eligible controls were 1:6 matched on age, sex, region of GP practice, and index year and month of COVID-19 infection. Five quintile groups, based on the number of previous 3-year antibiotic prescriptions, were created to indicate the frequency of prior antibiotic exposure. Conditional logistic regression used to compare the differences between case and control groups, adjusting for ethnicity, body mass index, comorbidities, vaccination history, deprivation, and care home status. Sensitivity analyses were done to explore potential confounding and the effects of missing data.


Based on our inclusion criteria, between February 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021, 98,420 patients were admitted to hospitals and 22,660 died. 55 unique antibiotics were prescribed. A dose–response relationship between number of antibiotic prescriptions and risk of severe COVID-19 outcome was observed. Patients in the highest quintile with history of prior antibiotic exposure had 1.80 times greater odds of hospitalisation compared to patients without antibiotic exposure (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 1.80, 95% Confidence Interval [CI] 1.75–1.84). Similarly, the adjusted OR for hospitalised patients with death outcomes was 1.34 (95% CI 1.28–1.41). Larger number of prior antibiotic type was also associated with more severe COVID-19 related hospital admission. The adjusted OR of quintile 5 exposure (the most frequent) with more than 3 antibiotic types was around 2 times larger than quintile 1 (only 1 type; OR 1.80, 95% CI 1.75–1.84 vs. OR 1.03, 95% CI 1.01–1.05).


Our observational study has provided evidence that antibiotic exposure frequency and diversity may be associated with COVID-19 severity, potentially suggesting adverse effects of repeated intermittent antibiotic use. Future work could work to elucidate causal links and potential mechanisms. Antibiotic stewardship should put more emphasis on long-term antibiotic exposure and its adverse outcome to increase the awareness of appropriate antibiotics use.