Sinus Infections—Antibiotics Not Always the Answer

Healthnotes Newswire (April 5, 2007)—Is your doctor quick to pull out the prescription pad when you come in with a sinus infection? If so, you’re not alone. According to a study in the Archives of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, antibiotics are being used too frequently to treat sinus infections, and doctors may not be choosing the most effective drug.

There are two basic types of sinus infections: those that last up to 4 weeks (acute sinusitis) and those that go on for 12 weeks or more (chronic sinusitis). While acute sinusitis is generally caused by an infectious agent—most commonly a virus—chronic sinusitis is usually related to other factors such as frequent upper respiratory infections, smoking, swimming, immune deficiencies, decongestant medication abuse, or anatomical problems like a deviated septum.

Although the majority of sinus infections are not caused by bacteria, antibiotics (which kill only bacteria) are the most commonly prescribed drug treatment. “The use of prescription antibiotics far outweighs the predicted incidence of bacterial causes of acute and chronic rhinosinusitis,” said researchers from the University of Nebraska after examining data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey of people who had received medical care for sinus infections between 1999 and 2002.

The researchers found that penicillin and its relatives were the most commonly prescribed drugs to treat cases of suspected bacterial sinusitis, and justifiably so: they are the most effective drugs for eradicating sinus infections.

The more troubling finding was that other types of antibiotics, such as erythromycin, that aren’t as effective in treating sinus infections are still frequently prescribed. “[An] important possibility is that many patients have self-limited disease that will resolve regardless of treatment.” In other words, even though the antibiotics appear to have cleared up the infection, it might have happened just as quickly with no treatment at all.

“There are concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and the resultant problems, including drug resistance and increasingly virulent bacteria,” the authors cautioned.

Many people expect a prescription and their doctors might be too hasty to satisfy this request when an antibiotic isn’t necessary. People who suffer from sinus infections have options besides antibiotics. Using a neti pot or bulb syringe to cleanse the nasal passages and sinuses is highly effective for treating both acute and chronic sinusitis. Identifying and treating food allergies and intolerances can also be helpful, especially for chronic sinusitis.

(Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2007;133:260–5)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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