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Sinusitis Treatments Found Ineffective

TUESDAY Dec. 4, 2007 -- Antibiotics and nasal steroids work no better than a placebo in combating sinus infections, a new British study shows.

"Antibiotics are probably not as effective as have been previously believed, particularly for the majority of cases of acute sinusitis," said study author Dr. Ian Williamson, a senior lecturer in primary medical care at the University of Southampton. "Patients should turn more to symptomatic remedies like analgesics while the body heals itself, usually over a period of three days to three weeks. Topical steroids have little overall effect, but may be beneficial, particularly in milder cases of acute sinusitis."

"For sinusitis, however it is being diagnosed in the primary-care setting, many of these cases do not require treatment, and a more cautious and conservative approach would seem to be warranted," added Dr. Reginald F. Baugh, vice chairman of surgery at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and director of the division of otolaryngology at Scott & White, in Temple, Texas.

But other experts say the study, published in the Dec. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is no reason to scrap antibiotics altogether in this scenario.

"This is a helpful and useful study, and we shouldn't condemn antibiotics in those people who need them," said Dr. Michael Stewart, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York City.

But, he added, only a minority of sinus infections are bacterial and will respond to antibiotics. The majority are viral infections, which won't respond to antibiotics.

According to an accompanying editorial, sinus problems account for 25 million doctor's office visits in the United States each year. Antibiotics are used to treat sinus infections 85 percent to 98 percent of the time in the United States.

Overuse of antibiotics not only won't help a patient with a viral infection get better, it will contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, experts have noted.

"Antibiotic resistance is rising dramatically, and there is no question about that," Baugh said.

For this study, 240 adults with sinus infections were randomized to one of four treatment groups: 500 milligrams of the antibiotic amoxicillin three times a day for seven days plus 200 micrograms of the nasal steroid budesonide once a day for 10 days; a placebo in place of the antibiotic plus budesonide; amoxicillin plus a placebo in place of budesonide; or two placebos.

In the amoxicillin group, 29 percent of patients had symptoms lasting at least 10 days, and 33.6 percent of those not receiving amoxicillin had the same symptom length of time.

In both the budesonide and no-budesonide groups, exactly 31.4 percent of patients had symptoms lasting at least 10 days.

The nasal steroids seemed to be more effective in individuals who had less severe symptoms.

As the editorial pointed out, most patients with acute sinusitis will get better on their own. Unfortunately, there's no good way to determine who has viral sinusitis and who has bacterial sinusitis.

"It's difficult to make a distinction in a primary-care setting," Baugh said.

If the symptoms are worse, treatment might be warranted, he added. "But for the bulk, I would assume it would be more of a wait-and-see approach. The bugs are winning," he said.

While researchers investigate possible new treatments, sinus infections sufferers might look to analgesics or brief use of steam inhalations, Williamson said.

Dr. William Morris, chairman and director of the department of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, recommends an alternative approach: manual pressure to the bottom of the head and beginning of the neck, to allow better drainage from the head.

"One of the problems with sinusitis is that the sinuses tend to get closed up," he said. "If you don't drain properly, bacteria is just happy as a clam. If you can increase drainage and improve flow through the sinuses, you're going to be facilitating the process."

More information

For more on sinus infections, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted: December 2007


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