Antibiotics for sinus infection of short duration in adults

Review question

Do antibiotics cure sinus infection faster than no antibiotics in adults?


A sinus is a cavity situated in the head. Adults with short-duration sinus infection experience stuffy nose and thick, yellow discharge from the nose. People with sinus infection can feel slime in the back of the throat, facial pain, pain when bending forward, and pain in the upper teeth or when chewing. A short-duration sinus infection may be suspected following physical examination and questions about symptoms. Blood examination or images of the sinuses can support diagnosis, but are not routinely recommended in most countries. Short-duration sinus infections are mostly caused by viruses. Nevertheless, physicians tend to prescribe antibiotics, which should only be used to treat bacterial infections. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily results in antibiotic resistance against bacterial infections. We investigated whether antibiotics cure adults with short-duration sinus infection faster than a dummy drug (placebo) or no treatment.

Search date

18 January 2018.

Study characteristics

We included 15 studies in which adults with short-duration sinus infection, whether or not confirmed by imaging, randomly received antibiotics, or a dummy drug or no treatment, in ambulatory care settings. The studies included a total of 3057 adults whose average age was 36 years; about 60% were female. Participants were followed until they were cured. Trial duration ranged from 8 to 28 days.

Study funding sources

Seven studies received financial support from government or academic institutions; six received grants from the pharmaceutical industry; and five did not state sources of support.

Key results

Without antibiotics, almost half of all participants were cured after one week, and two out of three were cured after 14 days. Five (diagnosis based on symptoms described to a doctor) to 11 (diagnosis confirmed by x-ray) more people per 100 were cured faster with antibiotics. A computed tomography (CT) scan could better predict who would benefit from antibiotics, but routine use would cause health problems related to radiation exposure. Ten more people per 100 were relieved faster of thick, yellow discharge from the nose with antibiotics compared to a dummy drug or no treatment. Thirteen more people per 100 experienced side effects (mostly concerning stomach or intestines) with antibiotics compared to a dummy drug or no treatment. Compared with people who initially started antibiotics, five more people per 100 in the dummy drug or no treatment group had to start antibiotics because their condition worsened. Serious complications (e.g. brain abscess) were rare.

We found that antibiotics are not a first-choice treatment for adults with short-duration sinus infection. We found no evidence relating to adults with severe sinusitis or with reduced immunity, or to children.

Quality of evidence

We found high-quality evidence when the diagnosis was based on symptoms described to a doctor. We downgraded evidence quality to moderate when diagnosis was confirmed by x-ray or CT scan because the number of participants was small, which makes the estimates less reliable.

Authors' conclusions: 

The potential benefit of antibiotics to treat acute rhinosinusitis diagnosed either clinically (low risk of bias, high-quality evidence) or confirmed by imaging (low to unclear risk of bias, moderate-quality evidence) is marginal and needs to be seen in the context of the risk of adverse effects. Considering antibiotic resistance, and the very low incidence of serious complications, we conclude there is no place for antibiotics for people with uncomplicated acute rhinosinusitis. We could not draw conclusions about children, people with suppressed immune systems, and those with severe sinusitis, because these populations were not included in the available trials.

Read the full abstract...

Acute rhinosinusitis is an acute infection of the nasal passages and paranasal sinuses that lasts less than four weeks. Diagnosis of acute rhinosinusitis is generally based on clinical signs and symptoms in ambulatory care settings. Technical investigations are not routinely performed, nor are they recommended in most countries. Some trials show a trend in favour of antibiotics, but the balance of benefit versus harm is unclear.

We merged two Cochrane Reviews for this update, which comprised different approaches with overlapping populations, resulting in different conclusions. For this review update, we maintained the distinction between populations diagnosed by clinical signs and symptoms, or imaging.


To assess the effects of antibiotics versus placebo or no treatment in adults with acute rhinosinusitis in ambulatory care settings.

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL (2017, Issue 12), which contains the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group's Specialised Register, MEDLINE (January 1950 to January 2018), Embase (January 1974 to January 2018), and two trials registers (January 2018). We also checked references from identified trials, systematic reviews, and relevant guidelines.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of antibiotics versus placebo or no treatment in people with rhinosinusitis-like signs or symptoms or sinusitis confirmed by imaging.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data about cure and side effects and assessed the risk of bias. We contacted trial authors for additional information as required.

Main results: 

We included 15 trials involving 3057 participants. Of the 15 included trials, 10 appeared in our 2012 review, and five (631 participants) are legacy trials from merging two reviews. No new studies were included from searches for this update. Overall, risk of bias was low. Without antibiotics, 46% of participants with rhinosinusitis, whether or not confirmed by radiography, were cured after 1 week and 64% after 14 days. Antibiotics can shorten time to cure, but only 5 to 11 more people per 100 will be cured faster if they receive antibiotics instead of placebo or no treatment: clinical diagnosis (odds ratio (OR) 1.25, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.02 to 1.54; number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) 19, 95% CI 10 to 205; I² = 0%; 8 trials; high-quality evidence) and diagnosis confirmed by radiography (OR 1.57, 95% CI 1.03 to 2.39; NNTB 10, 95% CI 5 to 136; I² = 0%; 3 trials; moderate-quality evidence). Cure rates with antibiotics were higher when a fluid level or total opacification in any sinus was found on computed tomography (OR 4.89, 95% CI 1.75 to 13.72; NNTB 4, 95% CI 2 to 15; 1 trial; moderate-quality evidence). Purulent secretion resolved faster with antibiotics (OR 1.58, 95% CI 1.13 to 2.22; NNTB 10, 95% CI 6 to 35; I² = 0%; 3 trials; high-quality evidence). However, 13 more people experienced side effects with antibiotics compared to placebo or no treatment (OR 2.21, 95% CI 1.74 to 2.82; number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) 8, 95% CI 6 to 12; I² = 16%; 10 trials; high-quality evidence). Five fewer people per 100 will experience clinical failure if they receive antibiotics instead of placebo or no treatment (Peto OR 0.48, 95% CI 0.36 to 0.63; NNTH 19, 95% CI 15 to 27; I² = 21%; 12 trials; high-quality evidence). A disease-related complication (brain abscess) occurred in one participant (of 3057) one week after receiving open antibiotic therapy (clinical failure, control group).