The Biggest Cold Remedy Myth
The examining table paper crinkles underneath you as the doctor takes your temperature, listens to your lungs, and then sticks the octoscope up your nose and in your ears. Finally, he peels off his rubber gloves and reveals your ailment: Sinusitis.
Your sinuses—the air-filled cavities behind your forehead and around your nose, cheeks, and eyes—are inflamed. This causes fluid to build up, so mucus can’t drain properly. You probably have difficulty breathing and a throbbing pain in your face when you lean forward or try to exercise. The headache, fever, cough, and swelling around your eyes are additional symptoms.
Check, check, check.
So how do you make it all go away? He scribbles on a notepad and hands you an antibiotic prescription. Hold up, doc. According to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, antibiotics prescribed by your doctor for sinus infections may not reduce symptoms any better or any faster than a placebo.
A group of 166 adults with sinus infections, or sinusitis, were selected for the study. Some of the patients took the antibiotic amoxicillin, while the other group took a placebo. The researchers expected to see any benefits of antibiotic treatment around 72 hours, since most sinus infections have run their course after 10 days. However, both groups felt the same amount of relief in symptoms. By day 10, 80 percent of both groups reported their symptoms were almost gone or cured. Plus, there was no difference between the groups in the amount of over-the-counter medications used to alleviate pain, congestion, fever, and cough.
So why are 1 in 5 antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. for a sinus infection when they don’t even work? “Sinusitis is usually a viral infection, not a bacterial infection,” says study author Jane Garbutt, M.D. The problem: Viruses don't respond to antibiotics. “Doctors tend to treat everyone with a sinus infection [as if it's bacterial], hoping to cover the ones that actually have the bacterial infection,” she says. That means a lot of people are popping antibiotics that don’t actually need them.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if you have a viral infection or a bacterial infection, explains Dr. Garbutt. “Instead of automatically treating sinus infections with antibiotics, doctors should explain to the patient that it’s most likely a virus and antibiotics won’t help at this point,” she recommends. With a viral infection, patients should start feeling better in 3 days and almost back to normal by day 10. “If the patient is still not improving, then they should go back to the doctor for further evaluation to see if an antibiotic is necessary,” she says. (Colds can ultimately turn into sinus infections. Here's how to stop a cold in its tracks.)
We know, we know. If you’re suffering for a sinus infection, there’s nothing worse than being told to wait it out. But don’t worry: There are some things you can do to make yourself more comfortable in the meantime. “To relieve headaches, facial pain, and fever, take a pain reliever containing acetaminophen,” suggests Garbutt. “Follow the directions and take them on a regular basis like every 4 to 6 hours, rather than every so often.”
Not sure you want to pop pills every few hours? No problem. Place warm, damp towels around your nose, cheeks, eyes, and forehead to ease facial pain, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid alcohol—it can worsen the inflammation of the lining of the sinuses.
Not sure if you have a sinus infection or not? Check out Men's Health Symptom Solver to find out what's bugging you.
—Additional reporting by Julie Stewart