Pounding headache, congestion, runny nose, cough -- all symptoms of a sinus infection. If you take an antibiotic, the infection will be over in seven days. Take over-the-counter medication and wait out the symptoms, and it will be over in a week.
And that's exactly what a new study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medication Association, has found.
Antibiotics are no more effective at ending a simple sinus infection than just relieving the symptoms with nonprescription medicine and waiting for the infection to pass.
Researchers with the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis found that an antibiotic, like amoxicillin, didn't relieve symptoms or get patients back to work any sooner than taking a placebo.
"Compared to a placebo, amoxicillin doesn't seem to provide any benefits," study author Jane Garbutt, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics, told CNN. "In terms of patient satisfaction, side effects, symptom relief, days missed from work, et cetera, we did not see any difference."
Many sinus infections are caused by a virus, which won't respond to antibiotics, but even bacterial sinus infections aren't helped much by an antibiotic.
"Most patients get better despite antibiotics, not because of them," says Garbutt.
The study involved 166 adults age 18 to 70 with moderate to severe sinus infections. Half of the subjects took amoxicillin three times a day for 10 days, and the other half took a placebo. In addition, every patient was given acetaminophen, cough medicine, and decongestants to use as needed.
Both groups reported that their symptoms improved at the same rate, although the antibiotic group at day seven said they felt measurably better than the placebo group. Unfortunately, the improvement wasn't big enough to make a difference to most patients, researchers said.
The main reason doctors prescribe antibiotics is that patients have come to expect them, Garbutt and her colleagues wrote. Currently, one of every five prescriptions for antibiotics in the U.S. is written for a sinus infection.
One solution, Garbutt says, might be to give patients a prescription, but tell them to fill it only if symptoms worsen, a common protocol in Europe.
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