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Antibiotics No Help for Sinus Cold

Even After 10 Days of a Head Cold, Antibiotics Don't Help Sinus Infection
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 13, 2008 -- Even after suffering 10 days with a head cold, antibiotics won't help your stuffy sinuses get better.

Antibiotics don't help virus infections, the cause of most head colds. But after an adult patient has suffered stuffy sinuses for a week to 10 days, most doctors offer antibiotic treatment in case a bacterial infection has set in. Doctors may offer antibiotics even more promptly if the sinus infection is dripping thick green phlegm into the throat.

But nasty snot or not, antibiotics aren't likely to help, find Jim Young, PhD, of University Hospital, Basel, Switzerland, and colleagues.

Young's team painstakingly re-analyzed clinical data from each of 2,547 adults with mild-to-moderate sinus infections. The patients were participating in one of nine different placebo-controlled clinical trials looking at whether antibiotics speed recovery from acute sinus infections.

"We found that overall, you would need to treat 15 patients with sinusitis-like symptoms for one patient to benefit," Young tells WebMD. "If you are older, if you have more severe symptoms when you come to the doctor's office, if you have symptoms longer, you will take longer to cure. But antibiotics will be of no more benefit to you than to any other patient."

Even people who really do have mild-to-moderate bacterial sinus infections get better without antibiotic treatment, says sinusitis expert Morton Lindbaek, MD, PhD, of the Antibiotic Center for Primary Care at the University of Oslo, Norway.

"It is even more safe than we had thought to wait and see if you get better without antibiotics," Lindbaek tells WebMD. "But if you somehow deteriorate or get worse, or take more than 10-14 days to get better, you must see your doctor."

Ten days is a long time to suffer with a cold. But even those who have suffered that long may take several more days to get better, Lindbaek and Young say.

The Young study looked at people who simply went to the doctor with symptoms of sinusitis. A recent clinical trial looked only at those patients most likely to have a bacterial infection. Both studies came up with the same result: Antibiotics aren't likely to help sinus infections.

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