A survey of first-line antibiotic prescription in community-acquired lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) by general practitioners (GP) was carried out simultaneously, using the same methodology in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Data were obtained from 2,056 patients and 605 GPs. There was no antibiotic prescription in 17% of all LRTIs and 13% of community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) in the five countries taken together; and in 32% of all LRTIs and in 23% of CAP in Germany. Of patients with acute bronchitis, exacerbation of chronic bronchitis and viral lower respiratory tract infection, 87, 92 and 71% received antibiotics, respectively. The most frequent prescriptions were penicillins in France and the UK, third-generation cephalosporin in Italy, tetracycline in Germany and macrolide in Spain. The daily dosage of aminopenicillin prescribed was: 41% <1.5 g; 49% > or = 1.5 g and <3 g; and 10% > or = 3 g. In Italy, 53% of all antibiotics were injected in all LRTIs, and 71% in CAP; in contrast, antibiotic injection was lower than 2% both in the UK and Germany, with an average of 14% in the five countries combined. We conclude that there are variations in antibiotic prescription by GPs in Western Europe; differences are likely to be multifactorial, but could, in part, be explained by differences in health systems and sources of information available to GPs.