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Today in Your Health: how pets can help you live longer. That's ahead. Let's go now to the latest research on using antibiotics for sinus infections. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, researchers are finding that antibiotics usually don't help.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: When colds get really bad, it's often because sinuses get infected. They get inflamed, swell and clog up. And that means pressure and pain around the face and eyes, a headache, congestion and sometimes fever. A sinus infection often sends patients to doctors, expecting relief in the form of antibiotics. Dr. Alan Glass directs student health services at Washington University in St. Louis.
DR. ALAN GLASS: A lot of times, they've tried the self-care kinds of things at home before they come here. And really, when things reach the point that they feel they need to seek medical care for it, a lot of times they are certainly expecting an antibiotic.
NEIGHMOND: And chances are, they'll get it.
DR. JAY PICCIRILLO: One out of every five prescriptions in this country for an antibiotic are for sinusitis.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Jay Piccirillo is an ear, nose and throat specialist at Washington University's School of Medicine. He was perplexed that doctors write so many prescriptions for antibiotics when it's clear from the science that antibiotics don't work against viruses. Most sinus infections are caused by a virus.
Still, Piccirillo thought maybe doctors were prescribing them because patients reported symptoms cleared up more quickly for some reason. To test the theory, he and his research team recruited 166 patients with sinus infections and divided them into two groups. One received a common antibiotic - amoxicillin - the other, a sugar pill.
PICCIRILLO: What was really surprising to us was that on day three, there was no difference in their symptoms of headache, nasal congestion, stuffiness between those who got the antibiotics and those who were on the placebo pill.
NEIGHMOND: So the answer to whether antibiotics help patients get better faster is no. Which means the challenge now is to convince patients. Dr. Alan Glass says the findings of this study should make that easier.
GLASS: We can actually give them a reason now and point to a well-done study and an article published in a very reputable journal that says that the amoxicillin is not effective.
NEIGHMOND: Now, there are some cases where antibiotics can be useful. In about 2 percent of sinus infections, patients go on to become infected with a bacteria. And in that case, antibiotics can help. But Piccirillo says to offer antibiotics right away to patients who demand them causes even bigger problems.
PICCIRILLO: The bugs are smart, and they figure out ways to survive in the face of the antibiotics. And so what happens over time, there's mutations of these bacteria so that they become less and less sensitive, or more and more resistant, to the antibiotics.
NEIGHMOND: Which means it's harder and harder to kill the bacteria and treat severe infections. That's why scientists say doctors need to be more prudent when prescribing antibiotics. And patients need to seek relief at their local pharmacy with over-the-counter medications to relieve pain and congestion.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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